SpaceX Launches, Lands First Reused ‘Block 5’ on 60th Falcon 9 Launch with Merah Putih Satellite

Launch of Merah Putih on the first reused SpaceX’ ‘Block 5’ Falcon 9 rocket, marking the 60th Falcon 9 mission on Aug 7, 2018. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Two weeks after seeing off the heavyweight Telstar 19V mission for Ottawa, Canada-based Telesat, Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., was back in action in the early hours of Tuesday, 7 August, to deliver a powerful communications satellite to geostationary orbit for Indonesia. Telkom-4, also known as “Merah Putih”, was lofted atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, on SpaceX’s 60th Falcon 9 mission, to replace the failed Telkom-1 at 108 degrees East longitude. During a planned 15 years of operational service, Telkom-4’s 60 C-band transponders will enhance internet and telephone services throughout Indonesia’s 17,000 islands, together with India and Southeast Asia.

Today’s mission saw the first reuse of a Block 5 first stage too, which had previously seen service on the Bangabandhu-1 launch in May.Tipping the scales at almost 12,780 pounds (5,800 kg), Telkom-4 is one of the heaviest payloads ever orbited by SpaceX.

The Merah Putih satellite at SSL’s factory prior to being delivered to the launch base. Photo Credit: SSL

Contracts to built Telkom-4 were awarded to Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) in December 2015. “Satellite services are particularly important in regions such as Indonesia, where the population is spread over thousands of islands,” explained then-SS/L President John Celli. “For SS/L, this is the third satellite for Indonesia that we will add to our backlog and we are honored to play such an important role in expanding the telecommunications infrastructure for the nation and the region.”

It is gearing up to be a busy summer for SpaceX, as the company plans to launch no less than three SS/L-built payloads in less than a month, each utilizing the highly reliable and flight-proven SS/L-1300 “bus”, which has been in service for almost three decades. Already, Telstar 19V was lofted to geostationary orbit on 22 July and, after Telkom-4, it is expected that Telstar 18V will fly later this month.

Launched in August 1999, Telkom-1’s success was tempered by a solar array drive malfunction and, last summer, by a catastrophic “debris-shedding” event. According to Space News, the satellite did not appear to have collided with another object, but was tumbling, possibly missing one of its solar arrays and was officially declared lost and unsalvageable by Telkom on 30 August 2017. Many of its existing customers were correspondingly moved over to the fully-functional Telkom-2 and Telkom-3S satellites at 118 degrees East. However, the Jakarta Post reported that a number of banking institutions had been affected, as they utilized Telkom-1 for their cash machines. Migration of services over to Telkom-2 and Telkom-3S was completed by mid-September, but even this could only support 77 percent of Telkom-1’s data haul, requiring Telkom to rent additional capacity from foreign-owned satellites. Undescoring the new satellite’s criticality, last fall (when Telkom-4 was still only 70-percent complete) Telkom submitted a schedule to accelerate by up to 60 days its launch readiness date.

Telkom’s Merah Putih satellite inside the Falcon 9’s fairing. Photo Credit: Telkom Indonesia

“Because our country consists of thousands of islands, Indonesia needs satellite technology,” noted Alex J. Sinaga, president and chief operating officer of Bandung-headquartered Telkom Indonesia, the nation’s largest telecommunications and network provider. “Satellite complements our other technologies, such as submarine cable, as the backbone that connects the islands of Indonesia.” According to Indonesian media, Telkom-4 completed its final integration and checkout in June and was transported by truck—reportedly traveling through ten U.S. cities—from SS/L’s Palo Alto, Calif., facility to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Following its arrival at the launch site, it was loaded with 7,600 pounds (3,450 kg) of propellants needed for orbit-raising and station-keeping.

Following a customary Static Fire Test of the nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines of the Upgraded Falcon 9 on 2 August, the booster was returned to a horizontal configuration and transported back to the assembly building for the installation of its bullet-shaped payload fairing, which housed Telkom-4.

A sooty used Falcon 9 ‘Block 5’ stands ready to launch its second mission with the Merah Putih satellite for Indonesia from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo: SpaceX

Loading of liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) got underway shortly before launch. Passing T-10 minutes, the terminal countdown autosequencer was initiated and the Merlin 1D+ engines were chilled, ahead of ignition. At T-2 minutes, the Air Force Range Safety Officer declared all ground assets as “Go for Launch” and the Falcon 9 transitioned to Internal Power and assumed primary command of all critical functions, going into “Startup” at T-1 minute. At this stage, the Niagara deluge system began flooding the pad surface with 30,000 gallons (113,500 liters) of water, per minute, to suppress the acoustic energy. The Eastern Range declared its readiness to support the launch as “Green”. Three seconds before liftoff, the Merlins roared to life, pumping out a combined thrust of 1.7 million pounds (771,000 kg) of thrust, followed by liftoff on-time at 1:18 a.m. EDT.

Immediately after clearing the tower, the Falcon 9 executed a combined pitch, roll and yaw program maneuver to establish itself onto the proper flight azimuth to inject Telkom-4 into its high orbit. Passing the point of Max Q at 70 seconds into the flight, the booster later throttled back two of the Merlins to reduce the rate of acceleration at Main Engine Cutoff (MECO). Two and a half minutes after launch, the seven remaining Merlins fell silent and the first stage separated from the stack. It was now the turn of the second stage, equipped with a single, restartable Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine. This now picked up the baton for a pair of lengthy “burns” to deliver its payload into orbit.

Although the primary focus of today’s launch was to launch Telkom-4, the discarded first stage was assigned the secondary objective of returning to a soft landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS)—dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You”—in the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX wants to see Block 5s conduct 10 or more flights with no refurbishment between each flight — or at least not scheduled refurbishment between each flight. They want to do nothing more than moving the booster from its landing pad to the launch site, integrate the new payload, move to the launch pad, refuel, and be able to launch the same rocket within 24 hours.

And they expect to do so no later than 2019.

Elon Musk even wants to see a same-day reflight next year too, not just a 24-hour turnaround, and he expects the rocket which just launched Merah Putih to make its 10th launch by the end of 2019.

This morning’s mission represented the 60th mission by a “single-stick” member of the Falcon 9 fleet, stretching back to the booster’s inaugural flight—in its “v1.0” configuration—in June 2010. Since then, the vehicle has moved through several iterations, with a significant enhancement in capability, from the 1.1 million pounds (500,000 kg) of thrust produced by the nine Merlin 1C engines on the Falcon 9 v1.0 first stage, through the 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg) from the Merlin 1D engines on the Falcon 9 v1.1, to the 1.7 million pounds (771,000 kg) from the enhanced Merlin 1D+ suite at the base of today’s Block 5.

All told, the evolution of the rocket over the last eight years and 60 flights has seen its payload capacity more than double, from an estimated 23,000 pounds (10,450 kg) to low-Earth orbit for the Falcon 9 v1.0 to 50,300 pounds (22,800 kg) for the Upgraded Falcon 9. And size matters, too, for today’s 230-foot-high (70-meter) booster is a full 50 feet (15 meters) taller than its pathfinding ancestor of June 2010. But although it took SpaceX eight years to reach the 50th flight of a Falcon 9 (a milestone achieved in March 2018), it has taken only five additional months to hit Flight No. 60.



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