Close to a quarter-century of powerful geostationary communications capability for southern and southeastern Asia, together with China, India, and parts of the Middle East, is set to continue with the planned launch of SpaceX’s sixth Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket and the AsiaSat-8 payload on Tuesday, 5 August. Built by Space Systems/Loral (SS/L), the cube-shaped satellite is based upon the LS-1300LL spacecraft “bus” and, with a payload power of 8,500 watts, will represent the most powerful AsiaSat ever placed into orbit. Launch is presently scheduled to occur from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 1:25 a.m. EDT (1:25 p.m. Hong Kong Time) on Tuesday, 5 August, at the opening of a two-hour “window.”
According to Spaceflight101, the two-stage Falcon 9 v1.1 was seen on the test stand in McGregor, Texas, in mid-June, prior to shipment to the Cape. Originally targeted for launch in April 2014, the AsiaSat-8 payload was obliged to await the departure of the long-delayed Orbcomm OG-2 mission from SLC-40, before its own vehicle could be rolled out to the pad. Rescheduled for Monday, 4 August, the mission was pushed to the right by 24 hours, due to intense Eastern Range traffic, which over the past week has also included two United Launch Alliance (ULA) flights: a Delta IV, carrying the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-4 payload, on Monday, 28 July, and an Atlas V, loaded with the seventh Global Positioning System (GPS) Block IIF satellite, on Friday, 1 August.
SpaceX now has Range clearance for Tuesday, 5 August, together with a backup opportunity on Wednesday, 6 August. Assuming SpaceX successfully flies on either Tuesday or Wednesday, it will establish a new “personal best” for the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services provider. Just three weeks have elapsed since it delivered six Orbcomm Generation-2 (OG-2) satellites into orbit on 14 July. If the mission launches on time, it will establish a 22-day “turnaround” between flights, eclipsing by one-third the previous record of 33 days. “The greatest challenge in achieving a fast turnaround had been the refurbishment of ground systems in between Falcon 9 launches,” explained Spaceflight101. “Previous missions left behind more damage than anticipated, impacting ground system components that were not expected to be replaced in between flights. Modifications to the pad were made by adding shielding to ground system lines and other components to avoid damage to these systems on every launch and only leave a number of replaceable items, such as strongback umbilicals to be swapped after every launch.”
Minus its payload fairing, the Falcon 9 v1.1 was rolled out to SLC-40 early on Thursday, 31 July, preparatory to a static “hot-fire” test of its nine Merlin-1D first stage engines. Its propellant tanks were loaded with a combination of liquid oxygen and a refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1.” Although not directly involved in the static test-firing, the second stage was pressurized in order to support the retraction of the launch pad’s strongback, ahead of the ignition of the Merlin-1Ds. The nine engines—which are configured with a single center engine, surrounded by a “ring” of eight others, as opposed to the “tic-tac-toe” layout of the earlier Falcon 9 v1.0 first stage—generate 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg) of propulsive yield at the instant of liftoff. The static test-firing got underway at about 7:30 p.m. EDT Thursday and met with no apparent difficulties. The rocket was then returned to a horizontal configuration and transferred back to its assembly building for the integration of the AsiaSat-8 payload.
The Falcon 9 v1.1 is expected to be returned to SLC-40, in full flight-ready configuration, tomorrow (Monday), preparatory to an opening launch attempt in the small hours of Tuesday morning. Since AsiaSat-8 requires a geostationary transfer orbit, with an altitude of about 22,300 miles (35,900 km), this mission will demand the maximum performance capability of the rocket and consequently a “propulsive return-over-water” and controlled splashdown of the first stage on extendible landing legs will not be attempted. In contrast to the highly dynamic weather which plagued the AFSPC-4 mission, conditions for late Monday are forecasted by Patrick Air Force Base meteorologists to be mostly cloudy, with a 70 percent likelihood of rain and lightning. This is expected to change to partly cloudy conditions and a 40 percent chance of rain and lightning by Tuesday morning.
Assuming a successful countdown Tuesday, SpaceX should complete fueling of the Falcon 9 v1.1 with liquid oxygen and RP-1 about an hour ahead of the 1:25 a.m. EDT opening of the launch window. At T-13 minutes, a standard poll of all stations will be conducted, and, pending a unanimous “Green” (“Go for Launch”), the Launch Director will press into the “Terminal Countdown” at T-10 minutes. Now running on the autosequencer, the Merlin-1D engines will be chilled down to provide pre-launch thermal conditioning. With all propellant tanks aboard the rocket verified to be at their proper flight pressures, the SLC-40 strongback will be completely retracted at T-4 minutes. The Flight Termination System (FTS)—which will be required to destroy the Falcon 9 v1.1, should there be a major accident during ascent—will be placed onto internal power and armed. By T-2 minutes and 15 seconds, the first stage will reach flight pressure.
Sixty seconds before liftoff, SLC-40’s “Niagara” deluge system will be activated, flooding the pad surface with 30,000 gallons (113,500 liters) of water per minute to suppress acoustic waves radiating from the Merlin-1D exhausts. At T-45 seconds, all tanks on both the first and second stages will be confirmed at flight pressure, leading up to an ignition of the nine engines and a short period of computer-controlled health checks. The power of the Merlin-1D powerplants is about 200,000 pounds (90,000 kg) greater than the earlier Falcon 9 v1.0 variant—which supported five launches between June 2010 and March 2013—and will rise from an initial 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg) at liftoff to 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) in the rarefied high atmosphere. “Unlike airplanes, a rocket’s thrust actually increases with altitude,” noted SpaceX. “The first-stage engines are gradually throttled near the end of first-stage flight to limit launch vehicle acceleration as the rocket’s mass decelerates with the burning of fuel.”
Immediately after clearing the SLC-40 tower, the Falcon 9 v1.1 will execute a combined pitch, roll, and yaw program maneuver to establish itself onto the proper flight azimuth for the injection of AsiaSat-8 into geostationary transfer orbit. Eighty seconds into the ascent, the vehicle will exceed the speed of sound and experience a period of maximum aerodynamic stress (colloquially known as “Max Q”) upon its airframe. Three minutes into the mission, the Merlin-1D engines will shut down and the first stage will be jettisoned. The turn will then come for the restartable second stage, whose single Merlin-1D Vacuum engine—with a maximum thrust of 180,000 pounds (81,600 kg)—will continue the boost to deliver AsiaSat-8 successfully into orbit.
As well as marking a personal best for SpaceX in terms of the interval between two launches, this mission will establish another personal best for the most number of flights accomplished by the company in a single calendar year. Previously, SpaceX has achieved two launches apiece in 2010 and 2012 and three in 2013. Having already delivered the Thaicom-6 geostationary payload into orbit in January, the third dedicated Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon cargo craft to the International Space Station (ISS) in April, and last month’s Orbcomm OG-2 satellites, the AsiaSat-8 mission represents SpaceX’s fourth flight of the year. However, the pace of SpaceX launches is not expected to slacken off any time soon. AsiaSat-6 is scheduled to roar into orbit on 25 August, followed by the fourth dedicated Dragon mission to the ISS on 12 September. In anticipation of this impending salvo of missions, AsiaSat-6 was delivered to the Cape on Thursday, 31 July, where it will undergo extensive testing, ahead of integration with its Falcon 9 v1.1.
After deployment into geostationary transfer orbit, following Tuesday morning’s launch, AsiaSat-8 will be co-located with its sister satellite, AsiaSat-7—lofted atop a Proton-M/Briz-M booster from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, back in November 2011—at 105.5 degrees East longitude. It will be operated by the Asia Satellite Telecommunications Company Ltd., headquartered in Hong Kong, and is equipped with 24 high-powered Ku-band transponders and a Ka-band regional beam payload. The high power of these transponders will enable the use of small-size receiving antennas on the ground. AsiaSat-8’s four Ku “spot beams” will respectively cover China, India, the Middle East, and South-East Asia, and it is expected to provide exceptional power and inter-beam switching capability for a variety of user services, including Direct-to-Home (DTH) television, private networks, and broadband.
AsiaSat selected Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) in November 2011 to build its AsiaSat-8 and AsiaSat-6 platforms, both of which are expected to support 15-year operational lifetimes. Based upon the LS-1300 “bus,” with a pair of deployable solar arrays and batteries, both satellites breezed through thermal vacuum tests last December and underwent dynamic tests and Compact Antenna Test Range (CATR) tests in January-February 2014. The latter allowed engineers to measure antenna and payload performance and demonstrate their compliance with spacecraft specifications. “These critical tests are essential,” AsiaSat reported in December 2013, “in order to achieve the highest quality and reliability of the spacecraft before shipment to the SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral.”
AsiaSat-8 was delivered to the Cape earlier this summer, and its arrival was featured on the Reuters sign in New York City’s Times Square on 4 July, allowing it to reach a daily audience of 1.5 million people. Following extensive tests, the satellite was encapsulated within its bulbous Falcon 9 v1.1 payload fairing on Tuesday, 29 July. The size and mass of the satellite demanded a 17.1-foot-diameter (5.2-meter) fairing, which stands about 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall.
The arrival of AsiaSat-8 will mark the ninth in a series of satellites, which can trace its ancestry back almost a quarter-century. AsiaSat-1, launched atop a Chinese Long March-3 booster in April 1990, had an interesting back story, for it was originally the Westar VI communications satellite, delivered into an improper orbit by shuttle mission 41B in February 1984 and triumphantly retrieved and returned to Earth by the 51A crew the following November. AsiaSat-2 followed in November 1995, also aboard a Long March rocket, after which the third (AsiaSat-3) and fourth (AsiaSat-3S) satellites in the series were delivered by Russian Proton-K boosters in December 1997 and March 1999. The latter replaced the decomissioned AsiaSat-1 from May 1999 and is today the oldest member of the fleet still in operational status. Kicking off the 21st century, AsiaSat-4 rode an Atlas IIIB from Cape Canaveral in April 2003, followed by AsiaSat-5 atop a Proton-M/Briz-M from Baikonur in August 2009 and the most recent additional, AsiaSat-7, in November 2011.
AsiaSat-5 entered the headlines in the summer of 2014, during the World Cup coverage from Brazil, when it delivered the first-ever live telecast of the international football competition in 4K resolution. Commonly (though not strictly accurately) known to the general consumer as “ultra-high-definition television” (UHDTV), 4K produces horizontal resolution of close to 4,000 pixels, more than four times higher than standard HDTV and capable of 60 frames per second. AsiaSat-5 delivered live 4K coverage of the Colombia-Uruguay Round of 16 match on 28 June, followed by the Germany-France quarter-final on 4 July and the final, between Germany and Argentina, on 13 July. According to AsiaSat, the worldwide number of 4K television households is expected to rise from 2.2 million at the end of 2013 to as high as 66.2 million by the end of 2018. Moreover, the Asia-Pacific region is forecasted to become the single largest 4K television market by 2016, accounting for 42 percent of global 4K television households.
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