Less than two weeks since the rousing launch of the CRS-6 Dragon cargo mission toward the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX is primed to deliver its second payload of 2015 to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) on Monday, 27 April, when its venerable Falcon 9 v1.1 booster lofts Turkmenistan’s first national communications satellite. Liftoff is scheduled to occur from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., during a 90-minute “window,” which opens at 6:14 p.m. EDT. With local sunset expected at 7:55 p.m. Monday and 7:56 p.m. Tuesday, a successful launch promises a beautiful view for observers in the Cape Canaveral area. Built by the Paris, France-headquartered Thales Group, the 9,920-pound (4,500-kg) satellite is encumbered with perhaps the most tongue-twisting name of any payload yet ferried into orbit by SpaceX—“TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat”—and will spend up to 15 years providing television, radio, and internet coverage of Europe, Africa, and significant swathes of Asia. If SpaceX launches on time on Monday, it will set a new record of just 13 days between missions, eclipsing the prior 14-day record set between last September’s flights of AsiaSat-6 and the CRS-4 Dragon.
Continuing an impressive salvo of flights for SpaceX, this will be the fifth mission by the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services operator in the first four months of 2015. It follows hard on the heels of the CRS-5 Dragon to low-Earth orbit on 10 January, NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) toward the L2 Lagrange Point—which marked SpaceX’s first foray beyond the Home Planet—on 11 February, the Eutelsat 115 West B and ABS-3A communications satellites to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) on 1 March, and the recent CRS-6 Dragon on 14 April. Each of these flights was conducted by SpaceX’s highly reliable Falcon 9 v1.1, which will be making its 13th launch in less than 19 months on the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat mission.
Current predictions from the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base are fair to negative for next week’s launch attempts, with a 60-percent likelihood of acceptable conditions on Monday, deteriorating to just 30 percent on Tuesday. Key factors are a potential violation of the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Thick Cloud Rule on Monday, with the Thick Cloud Rule and the Disturbed Weather Rule cited for Tuesday. “On Saturday, a fast-moving storm system will transit the Midwest and by Sunday move into the mid-Atlantic,” the 45th noted in its Friday morning forecast. “This system will add moisture and instability over Central Florida and convective activity could reach severe levels, mostly north of the Spaceport. Temperatures on Sunday will be well above normal, with the strong westerly winds ahead of the system.”
Pushing into Monday, a very strong system is expected to develop in Texas, which will pull the boundary from south Florida back north through the Space Coast. “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 the immediate aftermath of the delay, SpaceX submitted a new No Earlier Than (NET) date of 24 April to the Eastern Range for the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat flight. “With the time required to make the change, along with Range availability,” SpaceX told AmericaSpace, “our target date for the mission is now 24 April.” By the beginning of April, it was added that “Replacement of the helium bottles is nearing completion.”
In the meantime, it was understood that the Pad Abort Test (PAT) of a SpaceX Dragon—which, like TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat, also requires the use of the SLC-40 launch facilities, and seeks to demonstrate emergency escape mechanisms in readiness for Commercial Crew operations—would be moved from its original position in early April to the beginning of May. “We have more flexibility with the Pad Abort schedule,” SpaceX explained, “so we’re evaluating the best dates in light of the two missions we have coming in April.” The Dragon vehicle assigned to the PAT was delivered to the Cape in February 2015 for final processing. It will be mounted onto a support structure at SLC-40. “The whole test is less than two minutes from pad to splashdown,” SpaceX told us, “and most of that distance is covered in the first 25-30 seconds of the test.” As described by AmericaSpace’s Mike Killian, the PAT is now firmly scheduled for the morning of Tuesday, 5 May, although Range clearance has been secured for a backup opportunity on Wednesday, 6 May.
Following the successful flight of CRS-6 toward the space station, it was initially expected that the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat mission would retain its NET target of 24 April, although it has recently been revealed that the launch would slip slightly to 6:14 p.m. EDT on 27 April. Should the opening attempt be scrubbed, SpaceX has Range approval to support a backup opportunity at the same time—and also with a 90-minute “window”—on the 28th. With a standard Static Fire Test of the nine Merlin 1D engines on its first stage having been satisfactorily completed at SLC-40 on the afternoon of Wednesday, 22 April, the Falcon 9 v1.1 was returned to a horizontal configuration and transferred back to the processing facility for the integration of TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat. The payload is encapsulated within a bulbous, 43-foot-long (13.1-meter) Payload Fairing (PLF). With the success of the Static Fire Test, SpaceX was also able to press ahead with the standard Launch Readiness Review (LRR).
Following rollout to SLC-40, probably on Sunday, 26 April, the Falcon 9 v1.1 will be fueled with liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1.” 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)—requires the fuel lines of the engines to be chilled, in order to avoid thermally shocking and potentially fracturing them. All propellants should be fully loaded within one hour and the vehicle’s tanks will transition to “Topping Mode,” continuously replenishing boiled-off cryogens until close to T-0.
By 6:01 p.m. EDT Monday, the countdown will reach its final “Go/No-Go” polling point of all stations at T-13 minutes. Assuming it passes through the poll of flight controllers, the Terminal Countdown will get underway at T-10 minutes. During this period, the Merlin 1D engines will be chilled, ahead of their ignition sequence. All external power utilities from the Ground Support Equipment (GSE) will be disconnected and at 6:09 p.m., the roughly 90-second process of retracting the “strongback” from the vehicle will get underway. The Flight Termination System (FTS)—which is tasked with destroying the rocket in the event of a major accident during ascent—will be placed onto internal power and armed. By T-2 minutes and 15 seconds, the first stage’s propellant tanks will attain flight pressure and at T-2 minutes the Range Operations Co-ordinator (ROC) will confirm Eastern Range clearance to support the launch.
In this final phase, the nine Merlins will be purged with gaseous nitrogen, and, at T-60 seconds, the SLC-40 complex’s “Niagara” deluge system of 53 nozzles will be 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 will roar to life, ramping up to a combined thrust of 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg). Following computer-commanded health checks, the stack will be released from SLC-40 at 6:14 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 will execute 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 will exceed the speed of sound and experience 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 will undergo a chill-down protocol, ahead of its own ignition later in the ascent. At 6:16 p.m., 130 seconds after liftoff, two of the first-stage engines will throttle back, under computer command, to reduce the rate of acceleration at the point of Main Engine Cutoff (MECO).
Finally, at T+2 minutes and 58 seconds, the seven remaining engines will shut down, and, a few seconds later, the first stage will separate from the rapidly ascending stack. The turn will then come for the restartable second stage, whose Merlin 1D Vacuum engine—with a maximum thrust of 180,000 pounds (81,600 kg)—will support two discrete “burns,” then set TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat free about a half-hour after departing the Cape. The first burn will kick off at about T+3 minutes and 10 seconds, firing for close to six minutes to establish the payload into a “parking orbit.” During this time, the PLF will be pneumatically jettisoned, exposing the satellite to the harsh space environment for the first time, and the Merlin 1D Vacuum will shut down about nine minutes into the flight. The combo will then “coast” for approximately 17 minutes, ahead of the second burn at T+26 minutes, which will run for about 60 seconds, to position TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat for deployment at T+32 minutes.
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 will be 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 will 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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