Six months after its 19th mission ended in pieces of falling debris offshore of Cape Canaveral AFS, SpaceX’s new and improved Falcon-9 booster is set for a long-awaited Return to Flight (RTF) from Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40), no sooner than Saturday, Dec. 19, carrying with it 11 Orbcomm Generation-2 (OG-2) communications satellites into low-Earth orbit.
“Aiming for Falcon rocket static test fire at Cape Canaveral on the 16th and launch about three days later,” said company CEO Elon Musk on Twitter today.
A static test fire of the rocket on the pad, firing up all nine of its engines, is a standard practice for SpaceX, a “practice countdown” to ensure the vehicle and all of its systems operate as expected to verify the rocket and its payload are ready to fly together. Following the static test, Falcon-9 is then returned to its horizontal processing hangar for engineers to address any problems or proceed with final launch preparations and conducting the standard Launch Readiness Review (LRR).
As well as transporting the largest number of discrete satellites into orbit aboard a single SpaceX vehicle, the mission is expected to mark the maiden voyage of the “Full Thrust” (FT) variant of the Falcon 9 booster, also known informally as the “v1.2”. A successful flight in mid-December will open the floodgates for an ambitious 2016, which is expected to kick off with the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-8 Dragon cargo flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in the first week or two of January.
“We are excited to launch our 11 OG-2 satellites aboard SpaceX’s newly upgraded Falcon-9 rocket and have full confidence in SpaceX and their dedication to this launch,” said Orbcomm CEO Marc Eisenberg earlier this year. “We look forward to completing the deployment of our next-generation constellation and delivering a higher level of performance, coverage and reliability through our modernized and upgraded OG-2 network to our customers around the world.”
“All satellites fully fueled and attached to the rings,” tweeted Eisenberg on Dec. 9. “Waiting on SpaceX to confirm launch date.”
Launch of this next set of 11 satellites will occur under cover of darkness during a 3-hour launch window opening “between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. EST Dec. 19,” according to a SpaceX spokesperson this afternoon. “Following the static fire test, we expect to be able to confirm a specific targeted window for launch.”
Once launched they will bring the total number of OG-2 satellites flown by SpaceX to 18—six of which were carried aloft by a Falcon-9 in July 2014 and one of which failed to achieve orbit, due to a second-stage thrust shortfall in October 2012. All satellites are operated by Orbcomm, Inc., a major Machine-to-Machine (M2M) messaging-services provider, headquartered in Rochelle Park, N.J.
Built by Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) of Sparks, Nev., each three-axis-stabilized OG-2 satellite weighs 380 pounds (172 kg) and, when fully deployed in orbit, measures 42.7 feet (13 meters) x 3.3 feet (1 meter) x 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) and generates about 400 watts of electrical power. Based upon the SN-100 spacecraft “bus,” they are designed for minimum five-year operational lifetimes and utilize a modular payload deck which can be rapidly integrated and tested.
But one thing noticeably not mentioned in Musk’s updated RTF tweet today were plans to land the company’s RTF booster first stage.
At a press event at SpaceX’s Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A on Dec. 1, a NASA spokesperson from the agency’s Commercial Crew Program noted SpaceX plans to test Falcon boosters at 39A in preparation for upcoming launches from there with Falcon-9’s and the company’s highly anticipated Falcon Heavy. However, in doing so NASA specifically said SpaceX wants to land the RTF booster at Cape Canaveral, rather than their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), which is a fancy barge with a painted bulls-eye that floats offshore to serve as a landing pad, and if done successfully the RTF booster would then be transported to 39A to serve as a test vehicle to practice and prepare 39A for upcoming operational missions.
“Their plan (SpaceX), on their next launch, is they want to land on the Cape-side here,” said NASA. “The first stage, if they successfully get it back, will then be the test article here (39A), and it will go into the hangar where they (SpaceX) will do a little refurbishment, and they will actually put it on the transporter erector and roll it out to the pad to do fluid checks, electrical checks and propellant loading with that test article.”
Following this, SpaceX did offer response to AmericaSpace but could not provide any new information or updates, nor could they confirm or deny NASA’s comments. Instead, SpaceX advised that more information would be made available in coming days.
“Once a targeted launch date is publically confirmed, we’ll have more to say about first stage recovery plans for this next mission,” noted SpaceX to AmericaSpace today (Dec. 10).
The short video below was shot at the 39A media update Dec. 1, where NASA mentions F9 plans for RTF landing attempt on the Cape.
VIDEO: NASA Commercial Crew Program 39A Update Dec. 1, 2015
However, comments from the Air Force 45th Space Wing on Dec. 2 confirm that SpaceX has been pressing ahead with plans to land the Falcon-9 RTF Orbcomm first-stage booster on solid ground, rather than aboard the deck of the ASDS in the Atlantic Ocean.
“One thing that is true in recent news is that SpaceX is waiting on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for both RTF and doing a land landing vs. drone ship,” explained Chrissy Cuttita, operations chief of 45th Space Wing Public Affairs, based at Patrick Air Force Base, in response to an inquiry from Zero-G News’ Managing Editor Matthew Travis, who shared the information with AmericaSpace shortly thereafter.
The news came just a week after Blue Origin successfully launched and landed their own rocket in West Texas, which reached an altitude of 329,839 feet (100.5 km) before returning to Earth, making Blue Origin’s New Shepard system the first launch vehicle to successfully reach the universally agreed boundary of space and return for a soft landing back on terra firma.
Earlier this year, the 45th Space Wing signed a five-year lease with SpaceX to create a “Landing Pad” at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s historic Launch Complex-13. Utilized for Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tests and operational Atlas launches from August 1958 through April 1978, LC-13 was deactivated in 1980. More than three decades passed before SpaceX leased it in February 2015, and efforts to construct five landing pads for its returning Falcon-9 first-stage hardware soon got underway.
The site is now designated “Landing Complex-1.”
Operations are also ongoing to support a landing attempt for SpaceX’s RTF Orbcomm booster on the ASDS, just in case the FAA does not grant a landing attempt at the Cape in time for their launch date. Speculation is swirling that those approvals have been granted; however, we cannot confirm this yet.
As reported by AmericaSpace Senior Writer Ben Evans:
Flying for the first time with its 11 OG-2 passengers, the upgraded booster will see its first-stage Merlin 1D+ and second-stage Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engines running at their full, 100-percent power level. This is in contrast to the 80 percent of rated performance seen on previous Falcon 9 v1.1 missions. A further 13 percent of additional performance will be accrued through a range of structural enhancements to the vehicle’s airframe and a process of “densifying” and thereby increasing the liquid oxygen propelland load. All told, this is expected to yield a performance “gain” of 33 percent over the v1.1.
It is understood that the v1.1 utilized the Merlin 1D engines at 80 percent of rated capacity, with 20 percent held in reserve, in order to afford maximum flexibility to the payload to achieve its correct orbital position. In contrast, the v1.2/FT architecture centers around the enhanced “Merlin 1D+” engine, which is reportedly capable of 1.53 million pounds (694,000 kg) of thrust at T-0, effectively operating at “full” (100 percent) capability. This will increase to about 1.7 million pounds (771,100 kg) as the vehicle travels higher into the rarefied upper atmosphere. Similarly, the Merlin 1D Vacuum engine of the second stage will see a corresponding increase in propulsive yield from 180,000 pounds (81,600 kg) in the v1.1 to 210,000 pounds (95,250 kg) in the v1.2/FT. According to a source close to SpaceX, “FT” is the internal code name for calculating the Merlin 1D’s output at 100 percent, adding that “this improves the Falcon 9’s performance by 20 percent, although this ‘improvement’ was not really new: it was always there, but never utilized.” At the time of last summer’s failure, it is understood that SpaceX intended to stage its first v1.2/FT launch in July 2015, delivering SES-9 to GTO.
However, the 20-percent performance hike achieved by throttling the engines from their 80-percent to 100-percent power levels has been expanded yet further to reach an overall 33-percent “performance gain” over the v1.1. This gain has been met in part through structural enhancements to the vehicle’s airframe, including a 10-percent increase in propellant tank volumes, a lengthened second stage with extended Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine, upgraded landing legs and grid fins, an improved “Octaweb” support structure for the first-stage engine suite, a strengthened “interstage” between the two stages and a central “pusher” to ensure a smooth stage-separation process. All told, this increases the height of the v1.2/FT vehicle to 229.6 feet (70 meters), about 5.6 feet (1.6 meters) taller than the v1.1.
Additionally, the 33-percent performance gain has been met through “super-cooling” the liquid oxygen load—in what Musk described as “deep cryo oxygen”—below its normal saturation condition, in order to increase its density and permit the carriage of a larger load of propellants in the Falcon 9’s tanks. “Propellant densification,” noted engineers Ke Nguyen and Timothy Knowles in an American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) paper, “is one of the key technologies needed to meet the challenges of future reusable launch vehicles.” The densification process, AmericaSpace understands, has required the installation of specialized cooling stations at SpaceX’s dedicated Falcon 9 pads of Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at the Cape and Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Article written by Mike Killian and Ben Evans.
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