Three weeks after the spectacular landing of its Upgraded Falcon 9 first-stage hardware onto the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS)—affectionately dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You”—in the Atlantic Ocean, SpaceX plans to push the capability envelope on its next launch, targeted for no sooner than Thursday, 5 May. Not only does the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services provider aim to repeat the feat of bringing the core of the Upgraded Falcon 9 back to a soft landing on the ASDS, but it will do so with a markedly diminished propellant load, having boosted the JCSAT-14 communications satellite toward Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Launch is expected from the storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., during a two-hour “window,” which opens at 1:21 a.m. EDT Thursday.
This mission represents the 24th launch of a member of the Falcon 9 family, which debuted back in June 2010, as well as SpaceX’s fourth flight in the first five months of this year. Having suffered the catastrophic high-altitude breakup of its Falcon 9 v1.1 during first-stage flight, last 28 June, the company made a historic return-to-flight (and “Return to Land”) in December, then pushed ahead with an aggressive salvo of missions for 2016. In January, SpaceX bade a fond farewell to its Falcon 9 v1.1, which redeemed its tarnished reputation by successfully delivering NASA’s Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite into orbit. This was followed by a pair of Upgraded Falcon 9 missions: the first, in March, which delivered the SES-9 communications satellite to GTO and, most recently, on 8 April, the resumption of Dragon cargo flights to the International Space Station (ISS). On this latter mission, after coming within a whisker of success on several occasions, SpaceX triumphantly brought the first stage of the Upgraded Falcon 9 safely onto the ASDS deck.
Thursday’s mission will be the eighth time in 29 months that the booster has been utilized to deliver a payload to GTO altitude, some 22,300 miles (35,900 km) above Earth. That payload is the JCSAT-14 communications satellite, built by Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) on the framework of its highly reliable SSL-1300 satellite “bus,” which can provide power ranges between 5-12 kilowatts and support up to 70 active transponders. After the Upgraded Falcon 9 delivers it to orbit, JCSAT-14 will assume a position at 154 degrees East longitude, where it will replace the JCSAT-2A satellite and support the growing demand for telecommunications infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific Region. Specifically, JCSAT-14—designed to support a 15-year on-orbit operational life—will carry 26 optimized C-band transponders for broadcast and data networks and 18 Ku-band transponders for high-speed connectivity for maritime, aviation, and resource-exploration usage, covering Asia, Russia, Oceania, and the Pacific Islands. It will provide about 10 kilowatts of power at end-of-life.
JCSAT-14 boasts a proud heritage. Japan Communications Satellite Company was formed in 1985, immediately after the enactment of the island nation’s Telecommunications Business Law. When JCSAT-1 and JCSAT-2 rose to orbit in March and December 1989, they marked the dawn of Japanese commercial communications satellite services. Over the course of the next two decades, several JCSAT spacecraft—built variously by Hughes, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and now SS/L—were placed into orbit. In fact, JCSAT-14 will actually replace the aging JCSAT-2A satellite, launched in March 2002, which itself replaced the 1989-launched JCSAT-2 at the critical 154 degrees East orbital “slot.” Renamed JSAT Corp. in April 2000, the company merged in October 2008 with SKY Perfect Communications, Inc., and Space Communications Corp. Since then, it has become the SKY Perfect JSAT Group. Identifying itself as the leading satellite operator in the Asia-Pacific Region, it currently boasts 16 active operational satellites in GTO.
Contracts to build JCSAT-14 were awarded in June 2013, with SS/L President John Celli expressing hope that it marked “the beginning of a long and successful relationship for both of our companies.” Added SKY Perfect JSAT President and CEO Shinji Takada: “SS/L is a world leader in satellite manufacturing and has the ability to meet our rigorous schedule requirements for this important satellite.” Surprisingly, in view of the delays which have plagued several earlier SpaceX missions and the near-six-month down time enforced in the wake of last June’s ascent mishap, the JCSAT-14 launch will fly only a few months later than originally manifested. When SpaceX announced in January 2014 that it would carry the satellite, the company anticipated a launch in the second half of 2015.
In readiness for flight, SS/L delivered JCSAT-14 to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in March 2016, whereupon the satellite underwent testing, prior to integration with the Upgraded Falcon 9. Targeted to fly from SLC-40 in late April, the launch date moved slightly to the right, eventually alighting somewhere in the first week of May and finally settling in the pre-dawn hours of the 5th. According to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, conditions are expected to be 70-percent favorable for this opening launch attempt, with the Thick Cloud Rule and Anvil Cloud Rule being potential violating factors. With “more widespread rain and thunderstorms” expected by Wednesday, associated with a frontal boundary, it is anticipated that conditions will clear later that evening, ahead of the countdown. “However, timing of the frontal passage remains a concern,” the 45th explained in its weekend summary, “since guidance has shown a consistent slowing trend on when the front will clear the area over the past several days.” Conditions are expected to improve to about 90-percent favorable in the event of a 24-hour delay.
In the meantime, “Of Course I Still Love You”—one of two drone ships currently in use by SpaceX, the other being the West Coast-based “Just Read the Instructions”—departed Port of Cape Canaveral at 7:27 p.m. EDT Saturday. Accompanied by the Elsbeth III tug, it was bound for a position in the Atlantic Ocean, where it will standby to receive the Upgraded Falcon 9’s first stage, about 10 minutes after liftoff. It has been a busy month for Of Course I Still Love You: Following its sterling support of the CRS-8 Dragon mission on 8 April, it returned triumphantly to Port of Cape Canaveral overnight on 11/12 April, with the somewhat blackened first stage looking tired, yet proud. Three weeks later, the ASDS is set to do the same again … with the notable exception that the returning first stage from the JCSAT-14 launch will have endured a higher-altitude and higher-energy (and thus “hotter”) re-entry. This places a correspondingly increased demand upon the stage’s limited propellant reserves for the Supersonic Retro-Propulsion, Re-Entry and Landing burns, making a successful ASDS touchdown a more challenging prospect.
Thursday’s launch will proceed in a manner which has characterized the countdown regime of Upgraded Falcon 9 missions since December 2015. The 230-foot-tall (70-meter) booster was moved horizontally from its nearby processing facility and erected at SLC-40 for a standard Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines on Sunday, 1 May. The test reportedly passed without incident. “Static Fire complete, teams reviewing data,” SpaceX tweeted shortly after 8:30 p.m. EDT Sunday. “Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-14 communications satellite targeting May 5 at 1:21 a.m. ET.”
Loading of liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) aboard the vehicle will not begin until about 35 minutes before T-0. This marks a distinct difference between the Upgraded Falcon 9 and its earlier Falcon 9 v1.0 and v1.1 cousins and is due to the use of densified liquid oxygen, which is chilled much closer to its freezing point and loaded much later in the countdown. A final “Go/No-Go” polling of all flight control stations will occur at T-13 minutes, prior to Terminal Countdown operations at T-10 minutes. After engine chilling, the retraction of the launch pad’s strongback, arming of the Flight Termination System (FTS) and completion of fueling, at T-60 seconds the 53 nozzles of the Niagara deluge system will flood SLC-40 with 30,000 gallons (113,500 liters) of water per minute to suppress acoustic energy at the instant of engine-start.
The Upgraded Falcon 9 will power off the pad under the combined impulse of 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) from its nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines. A little under three minutes later, in the rarefied high atmosphere, the Merlins will shut down and the first stage will separate, to begin its complex sequence of Supersonic Retro-Propulsion, Re-Entry, and Landing Burns to reach the ASDS. Meanwhile, the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the rocket’s second stage will execute the first of two planned “burns” —during a period which will also see the bulbous Payload Fairing (PLF) jettisoned—to deliver JCSAT-14 into its correct orbital position. Thus will conclude the first of at least two JCSAT missions atop Falcon 9 vehicles. In September 2014, SpaceX contracted with SKY Perfect JSAT Group to deliver the JCSAT-16 satellite into orbit. This will serve as an on-orbit spare, providing more stable and continuous services to the company’s existing Ku- and Ka-band telecommunications assets.