Despite ominous gray cloud cover over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.—and a seemingly inevitable likelihood of a scrub—SpaceX successfully “threaded the needle” and exploited a fortunate improvement in the weather by delivering its fifth Falcon 9 v1.1 booster of 2015 aloft at 7:03 p.m. EDT Monday, 27 April. Today’s 90-minute “window” was used to maximum effect, as efforts to press into the Terminal Countdown were twice placed on hold, so poor was the weather. Eventually, 49 minutes into the window, SpaceX capitalized on improving conditions from the West and the Falcon roared aloft, delivering Turkmenistan’s first national communications satellite to a 22,300-mile (35,900-km) Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). The launch came just 13 days after the recent CRS-6 Dragon mission to the International Space Station (ISS), thereby eclipsing SpaceX’s previous 14-day record, set between last September’s flights of the AsiaSat-6 communications satellite and the ISS-bound CRS-4 Dragon.
As detailed in AmericaSpace’s preview of the mission, the delivery of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat payload to GTO continued an impressive salvo of flights for SpaceX, as the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company accomplished its fifth launch of 2015. Tonight’s success comes hard on the heels of the CRS-5 Dragon to low-Earth orbit—bound for the International Space Station (ISS), as part of the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA—on 10 January, followed by the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) to the L2 Lagrange Point on 11 February, the dual-payload Eutelsat 115 West B and ABS-3A communications satellites to GTO on 1 March, and the recent CRS-6 Dragon on 14 April. Each of these flights has been undertaken by SpaceX’s highly reliable Falcon 9 v1.1 booster, which has now conducted 13 successful launches in less than 19 months.
Targeting an opening launch attempt at 6:14 p.m. EDT on Monday, at the opening of a 90-minute “window,” the Falcon 9 v1.1 booster was transferred horizontally to Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., where it was raised to the vertical and executed a customary Static Fire Test of the nine Merlin 1D engines on its first stage on the afternoon of Wednesday, 22 April. It was then returned to a horizontal orientation and taken back to the processing facility for the integration of the 43-foot-long (13.1-meter) Payload Fairing (PLF), which housed the 9,920-pound (4,500-kg) TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat. Following several days of post-test data analysis, SpaceX completed a formal Launch Readiness Review (LRR) on Sunday and the Falcon returned to the pad late that afternoon.
Conditions for an on-time launch on Monday, however, seemed iffy at best, with the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base offering only a 60 percent likelihood that the meteorological outlook would be satisfactory at T-0. Potential violating factors came in the form of possible infringements of the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Thick Cloud Rule on Monday, with the Thick Cloud Rule and Disturbed Weather Rule cited for the backup launch opportunity on Tuesday, 28 April, following the development of a very strong system in Texas. The probability of acceptable conditions was expected to deteriorate to 30 percent favorable, in the event of a 24-hour scrub to Tuesday. “The primary weather concerns are cumulus clouds and thick cloud layers associated with this boundary,” it was explained. “Maximum upper-level winds will be westerly at 95 knots near 38,000 feet (11,500 meters). On Tuesday, the storm system continues to strengthen into a major weather producer as it moves along the Gulf Coast states. By launch time Tuesday, significant cloud cover, rain and isolated thunderstorms are expected in Central Florida. Maximum upper-level winds will be west at 100 knots at 40,000 feet (12,200 meters).”
In spite of the gloomy forecast, and iron-gray skies over the Cape, SpaceX pressed ahead this morning with the final preparations for launch. With 90 minutes available to fly, and taking into account the capabilities of the Falcon 9 v1.1 hardware—which can support repeated scrubs and recycled launch attempts within a single “window,” up to and including the ignition of the nine Merlin 1D first-stage engines, as highlighted in the dramatic SES-8 launch campaign in November 2013—engineers began powering-up the vehicle shortly after 8:00 a.m. EDT Monday. Several hours later, a satisfactory “Go/No-Go” poll for fueling was passed and the process of loading liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) aboard the vehicle got underway at about 3:15 p.m.
The cryogenic nature of the oxygen—whose liquid state exists within a range from -221.54 degrees Celsius (-368.77 degrees Fahrenheit) to -182.96 degrees Celsius (-297.33 degrees Fahrenheit)—required the fuel lines of the engines to be chilled, in order to avoid thermally shocking and potentially fracturing them. All propellants were fully loaded by 4:40 p.m. and the vehicle’s tanks transitioned to “Topping Mode,” continuously replenishing boiled-off cryogens until close to T-0.
Unfortunately, the weather did not appear to be showing the slightest sign of co-operating with SpaceX on Monday. By 5:30 p.m., less than an hour before the opening of the launch window, the weather was described as “Red” (“No-Go”), with specific Range Weather Commit Criteria violations for Thick Cloud and Attached Anvil Clouds. These rules dictate that the Falcon 9 v1.1 cannot fly within 11.8 miles (19 km) of an attached thunderstorm anvil cloud or launch through a cloud layer in excess of 4,500 feet (1,400 meters) thick, which extends into freezing temperatures. However, the Cumulus Cloud Rule—which prohibits launching within 11.8 miles (19 km) of cumulus clouds with tops that extend into freezing temperatures—was classified as “Green” (“Go”). This was a pity, for the other eight Range Weather Commit Criteria areas were deemed acceptable, as were Weather Commit Criteria factors, including liftoff winds and solar weather.
When SpaceX’s live webcast opened at 5:55 p.m. EDT, Falcon 9 Product Director John Insprukter explained that initial hopes to launch at the beginning of the window were entirely dependent upon the result of the final Weather Briefing at T-12 minutes. This judgement would prove an important factor in deciding whether to press ahead into the Terminal Countdown. Almost immediately, as the Launch Director moved into his “Go/No-Go” poll of all stations at T-13 minutes, a delay was immediately enforced when Weather declared itself “No-Go,” and at 6:04 p.m.—just before it would have entered the Terminal Countdown at T-10 minutes—the clock was recycled back out to T-20 minutes and held until a revised T-0 could be accurately determined. “This allows the launch team to return the satellite to internal power,” explained AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker, “whilst they try to find a slot to restart the countdown.”
After a lengthy delay, at 6:26 p.m., Mr. Insprukter addressed his webcast audience, noting that there existed a possible break in the poor weather, later in the window. A few minutes thereafter, he reported a possible revised T-0 at 6:53 p.m. “We are waiting for the clouds to pass over,” noted AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker. “It is dark and gloomy at Launch Complex 40. However, the weather is improving from the West.” In readiness for the new launch attempt, the clock resumed counting at 6:34:54 p.m. A few minutes later, the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat payload transitioned to internal power, but with the weather still remaining grim T-0 was shifted a second time to No Earlier Than (NET) 7:03 p.m. With about 41 minutes remaining in Monday’s window, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the attempt would go down to the wire.
In the meantime, both the Falcon 9 v1.1 and its payload—which represents Turkmenistan’s first national geostationary communications satellite, to be positioned at the 52E orbital slot, licensed to the Principality of Monaco—were both displaying no issues as they prepared for their journey into space. At 6:48 p.m., Mr. Insprukter explained that high-level winds were within acceptable guidelines and that SpaceX was expecting the Thick Cloud Rule and Attached Anvil Cloud Rule violations to clear within a few minutes. At T-13 minutes, the Launch Director again polled the team for their “Go/No-Go” status. Although the weather console again reported a “No-Go,” the response was tempered with a positive “Expected to Go shortly” and the poll continued smoothly. At 6:53 p.m., the Terminal Countdown got underway and, against so many odds, at 6:57 p.m. the weather officer finally declared that conditions were now “Green” (“Go for Launch”).
During this period, the Merlin 1D engines were chilled, ahead of ignition. All external power utilities from the Ground Support Equipment (GSE) were disconnected and at 6:58 p.m., with booster and payload running on internal power, the 90-second process of retracting the “strongback” from the vehicle got underway. The Flight Termination System (FTS)—tasked with destroying the rocket in the event of a major accident during ascent—was placed onto internal power and armed. The Launch Director declared a final “Go for Launch” at this time. By T-2 minutes and 15 seconds, the first stage’s propellant tanks attained flight pressure, and at T-2 minutes the Range Operations Co-ordinator (ROC) confirmed Eastern Range clearance to support the launch with a clipped “Range Green.”
In this final phase, the nine Merlin 1Ds were purged with gaseous nitrogen, and, at T-60 seconds, the SLC-40 complex’s “Niagara” deluge system of 53 nozzles was activated, flooding the pad surface and flame trench with 30,000 gallons (113,500 liters) of water, per minute, to suppress acoustic energy radiating from the engine exhausts. At T-3 seconds, the Merlins roared to life, ramping up to a combined thrust of 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg). Following computer-commanded health checks, the stack was released from SLC-40 at 7:03 p.m. EDT, kicking off the 18th flight by a member of the Falcon 9 rocket family, the 13th mission by the upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1, as well as SpaceX’s sixth foray to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) and the company’s fifth launch of 2015.
To date, with the exception of the Orbcomm OG-2 secondary payload—delivered into a lower than intended orbit, back in October 2012—the Falcon 9 family has enjoyed a 100 percent launch success rate. Immediately after clearing the tower, the booster executed a combined pitch, roll and yaw program maneuver to establish it onto the proper flight azimuth to inject the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat payload into orbit. Eighty seconds into the uphill climb, the vehicle exceeded the speed of sound and experienced a period of maximum aerodynamic duress—colloquially dubbed “Max Q”—on its airframe. At about this time, the restartable Merlin 1D Vacuum engine of the second stage underwent a chill-down protocol, ahead of its own ignition later in the ascent. At 7:05 p.m., 130 seconds after liftoff, two of the first-stage engines throttled back, under computer command, to reduce the rate of acceleration at the point of Main Engine Cutoff (MECO).
Finally, at T+2 minutes and 56 seconds, the seven remaining engines shut down, and, a few seconds later, at 7:05:59 p.m., the first stage separated from the rapidly ascending stack. The turn then came for the restartable second stage, whose Merlin 1D Vacuum engine—with a maximum thrust of 180,000 pounds (81,600 kg)—supported two discrete “burns,” then set TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat free about a half-hour after departing the Cape.
The first burn kicked off at 7:06:06 p.m., a little more than three minutes into the flight, and fired for close to six minutes to establish the payload into a “parking orbit.” During this time, at 7:06:51 p.m., the PLF was pneumatically jettisoned, exposing the satellite to the harsh space environment for the first time. “At this height in the atmosphere,” AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker noted, “there is no threat of damage to the delicate satellite from the rushing air.” Meanwhile, the Merlin 1D Vacuum shut down about nine minutes into the flight. The combo then “coasted” for approximately 17 minutes, ahead of the second burn at 7:28 p.m., about 25 minutes after leaving the Cape. This burn ran for 55 seconds, and was followed by a 180-second coast phase to position TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat for deployment. Precisely on time, at 7:35 p.m. EDT, 32 minutes into the mission, the payload was successfully released from the second stage of the booster.
Due to the geostationary destination of the satellite—at an approximate altitude of 22,300 miles (35,900 km)—the maximum performance of the Falcon 9 v1.1 booster was required for payload delivery, and thus an attempt to soft-land the first stage hardware on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic Ocean did not occur on this mission. Two previous attempts to accomplish this remarkable feat have been made, with steadily maturing levels of success. In January, following the CRS-5 launch, a Falcon first stage reached and impacted the deck of the ASDS, but hit its target at a 45-degree angle and exploded, whilst the recent CRS-6 attempt saw “excess lateral velocity” during the final descent cause the rocket to tip over post-landing, due to “stiction in the biprop throttle valve, resulting in control system phase lag,” according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk. The next landing attempt will be made during the CRS-7 Dragon launch in mid-June.
Based upon Thales’ medium-class Spacebus 4000 C2 satellite platform, the 9,920-pound (4,500-kg) TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat will benefit from dual-array solar power provision of up to 15.8 kilowatts and up to 11.6 kilowatts of payload capability, enabling around 80-100 active channels with medium Radio Frequency (RF) power and coverage across the Ku/C and Ka frequency bands. In November 2011, Thales contracted with Turkmenistan Ministry of Communications to build the satellite—together with two Ground Control Stations and associated services, including an internship program to train a team of Turkmen operators—with the expectation that it would provide the Central Asian nation with its first National System of Satellite Communications.
“This is a very important milestone for our customer, Turkmenistan Ministry of Communication, and for our company, and we would like to thank all the parties involved in this project since the beginning,” said Reynald Seznec, President and CEO of Thales Alenia Space, after the contract award. “Co-operation with Turkmenistan is strategically important for Thales Group and this contract is further reinforcing our already existing relations.” It was noted that the satellite would utilize the 52E orbital position of the Principality of Monaco—also known as “MonacoSat-1,” hence its cumbersome name—via the Monaco Satellite Operator Space Systems International-Monaco (SSI), and would be equipped with “Ku-band transponders covering large beams over Central Asia Region.” Of the satellite’s 38 transponders, it is expected that 12 will be dedicated to SSI usage.
Ironically, it was revealed earlier this week that Turkmenistan’s notoriously repressive regime is in the process of banning all satellite dishes from private apartments and properties and “demolishing” existing satellite installations. “The intention is to fully block access to international TV and radio signals coming into the country via satellite,” it was explained. The article, on the website Advanced-Television.com, added that this would prevent hundreds of international news channels—including Radio Azatlyq, the Turkmen-language service of Radio Liberty/Free Europe—from reaching the population.
Under the terms of the contract, Thales was directed to deliver the satellite in 31 months, but successfully completed it and readied it for shipment more than four months earlier than planned. On 23 February 2015, TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat was shipped from Thales’ facility in Cannes, south-eastern France, and arrived at Cape Canaveral three days later. Original plans called for the satellite to be launched atop a member of China’s Long March rocket family, but this was abandoned following a dispute between Thales and the U.S. State Department in 2012 over export control rules. As a result, in June 2013, Thales contracted with SpaceX to deliver TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat atop a Falcon 9 v1.1.
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