Twenty-four hours later than originally planned, SpaceX has successfully conducted its fourth launch of 2016, delivering the heavyweight JCSAT-14 communications satellite into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) on behalf of the Tokyo-based SKY Perfect JSAT Group. Liftoff of the Falcon 9—flying for the fourth time in its Upgraded variant, with an enhanced suite of nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines, producing 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) of thrust at T-0—took place on time at 1:21 a.m. EDT Friday, 6 May, right on the opening of a two-hour “window.” A little more than 32 minutes after leaving the storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., JCSAT-14 separated from the Upgraded Falcon 9’s second stage, heading for at least 15 years of operations, providing communications services across Asia, Russia, Oceania, and the Pacific Islands.
Tonight’s launch also saw the successful landing of the Upgraded Falcon 9 first stage on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic Ocean, marking SpaceX’s second back-to-back on-target oceanic touchdown. Counting last December’s triumphant “land” landing, following the OG-2 mission, SpaceX has now successfully brought three Falcon 9 first stages back from the edge of space, through the high-velocity and high-energy environment of re-entry and safely back to Earth.
As outlined previously by AmericaSpace, JCSAT-14 is the latest in a long line of Japanese commercial communications platforms, the first of which—JCSAT-1, launched in March 1989—has helped to establish what is today the SKY Perfect JSAT Group in pole position as the leading satellite operator in the Asia-Pacific Region. And JCSAT-14 has a tangible link with the very beginning: after orbital insertion, it will enter a “slot” at 154 degrees East longitude, picking up the baton from the 2002-launched JCSAT-2A, which itself replaced the 1989-launched JCSAT-2. At present, SKY Perfect JSAT Group operates more than a dozen operational satellites in geostationary orbit, some 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth.
Each JCSAT platform has been built by a U.S. aerospace firm, with Hughes, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin having constructed most of the fleet, before Palo Alto, Calif.-headquartered Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) won the contract to build JCSAT-14 in June 2013. It will also deliver two follow-on satellites, JCSAT-15 and JCSAT-16, all three of which are based upon its highly reliable SSL-1300 “bus.” The latter can provide power levels between 5-12 kilowatts—with the trio of JCSAT birds fitting into the median of this range—and support as many as 70 active transponders. JCSAT-14 carries 26 optimized C-band transponders for broadcasting and data networks, as well as 18 Ku-band transponders for high-speed connectivity for maritime, aviation, and resource-exploration usage.
Within months of the contract award, in January 2014, Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX announced that it would transport JCSAT-14 to orbit, with launch initially targeted for the second half of 2015. This schedule met with some delay, following the high-altitude breakup of a Falcon 9 v1.1 booster during first-stage flight, last 28 June, which placed all missions on hold until corrective actions had been completed. SpaceX returned to flight in December and in March 2016 JCSAT-14 was delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for final processing and integration aboard the Upgraded Falcon 9.
Following the completion of a successful Static Fire Test of the rocket’s nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines on SLC-40 on Sunday, 1 May, SpaceX initially aimed for an opening launch attempt at 1:21 a.m. EDT Thursday, 5 May. However, despite an 80-percent-favorable weather forecast—with a late-season frontal boundary steadily retreating southwards, leaving the Thick Cloud Rule and Liftoff Winds as potential violating factors—SpaceX announced late Wednesday morning that it would move the launch to the wee hours of Friday morning. “Due to weather at the Cape, we are now targeting Friday, 6 May, at 1:21 a.m. ET for the launch of JCSAT-14,” the company tweeted. SpaceX later advised AmericaSpace that the delay was “due to inclement weather in the area” and noted that “the rocket is healthy.”
According to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, showers and isolated thunderstorms early in the week were expected to clear by the opening of Thursday’s launch window. “On Thursday, conditions are expected to continue to improve as the frontal boundary moves further south, away from the Spaceport,” the 45th noted in its Monday morning forecast. “The main weather concern is a Thick Cloud Layer that may develop from remnant low-level moisture.” However, SpaceX elected to wait for improved weather on Friday, when the possibility of violating the Thick Cloud Rule offered a 90-percent likelihood of acceptable weather at T-0.
Topped by its bulbous Payload Fairing (PLF), which encapsulated the JCSAT-14 satellite, the Upgraded Falcon 9 stands 229 feet (70 meters). This is about 5.6 feet (1.6 meters) taller than its predecessor—the Falcon 9 v1.1, which flew 15 times between its maiden voyage in September 2013 and its swansong in January 2016—and the upgraded booster also utilizes “densified” liquid oxygen as part of its propellant load. As described by AmericaSpace last fall, the Upgraded Falcon 9 benefits from “full-thrust” engines, together with associated structural enhancements to its airframe, which produce a 33-percent performance hike over its predecessor. Whereas the v1.1 required several hours to load its liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene (“RP-1”) propellants, the Upgraded Falcon 9 does not begin tanking until about 35 minutes before T-0.
Late Thursday evening, SpaceX teams came to their consoles to begin countdown operations, which progressed smoothly as darkness fell over the Space Coast. Shortly after 8 p.m. EDT, SpaceX tweeted a glorious view of the Upgraded Falcon 9 vertical at SLC-40, against the backdrop of the setting Sun. Finally, at 12:46 a.m. EDT Friday, the company announced that fueling had begun. “Rocket now being fueled after Launch Director confirmed we are go for launch,” it tweeted. “35 minutes and counting.”
At T-13 minutes, a final “Go/No-Go” poll of all 13 flight controllers was undertaken, producing a unanimous string of “Go” calls across the net. This allowed the Launch Director (LD) to authorize the commencement of the Terminal Countdown at T-10 minutes, during which the nine Merlin 1D+ engines were chilled, ahead of their ignition sequence. All external power utilities from the Ground Support Equipment (GSE) were disconnected, the JCSAT-14 payload was transitioned to internal battery power, and at T-5 minutes the roughly 90-second process of retracting the “strongback” from the Upgraded Falcon 9 got underway. By this time, weather conditions within mandated levels, with relatively calm ground-level winds.
Meanwhile, the Flight Termination System (FTS)—which would destroy the vehicle in the event of an accident during ascent—was placed onto internal power and armed. Fueling concluded and the first stage propellant tanks attained their proper flight pressures. The nine Merlins were purged with gaseous nitrogen and, at T-60 seconds, the “Niagara” deluge system of 53 nozzles were activated, flooding the launch pad and flame trench with 30,000 gallons (113,500 liters) of water per minute to suppress acoustic energy radiating from the engine exhausts. At the same time, the Upgraded Falcon 9 entered “Startup,” with on-board flight computers controlling all critical functions.
At T-3 seconds, the Merlin 1D+ engines roared to life, ramping up to their combined thrust of 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg). Following computer-commanded health checks of the engines, the vehicle was released from SLC-40 and the booster blazed into the darkened Florida sky, precisely on time at 1:21 a.m. EDT. Coming five hours after local sunset and five hours ahead of sunrise, it was SpaceX’s 12th launch in darkness, achieving a roughly 50-50 split between daytime and nighttime launches in 24 Falcon 9 missions since June 2010.
Immediately after clearing the SLC-40 towers, the booster executed a combined pitch, roll, and yaw program maneuver, establishing itself onto the proper flight azimuth to inject JCSAT-14 into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). Eighty seconds into the climb, it exceeded the speed of sound and experienced a period of maximum aerodynamic duress—colloquially known as “Max Q”—on its airframe. Concurrently, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage underwent a “chill-down” protocol, prior to its own pair of “burns,” late in the ascent, to deliver JCSAT-14 to orbit.
Just under three minutes after launch, the first stage exhausted its propellant and separated, whereupon the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum ignited for the first time. This engine produces about 210,000 pounds (95,250 kg) of propulsive yield. During its 6-minute and 4-second burn, the PLF was discarded, exposing JCSAT-14 to the space environment for the first time. With the completion of the first burn, the second stage coasted for 17.5 minutes, prior to the second burn which positioned the satellite correctly for deployment. This burn lasted for about 59 seconds and JCSAT-14 was deployed into its orbit at an altitude of 22,236 miles (35,786 km), some 32 minutes after launch.
In the meantime, following the earlier separation of the first stage, another part of the mission was underway: the attempt to land on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), affectionately nicknamed “Of Course I Still Love You.” Drawn out of Port of Cape Canaveral by the Elsbeth III tug late last week, the drone ship was positioned about 410 miles (660 km) east of the Cape, to await what SpaceX hoped would be its second back-to-back successful landing.
It had already been noted that the higher-altitude and higher-energy ascent profile of the JCSAT-14 would produce a correspondingly “hotter” re-entry than its predecessor and would prove more restrictive upon propellant reserves. “Given this mission’s GTO destination,” SpaceX noted in its JCSAT-14 press kit, “the first-stage will be subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating, making a successful landing unlikely.” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk added: “Rocket reentry is a lot faster and hotter than last time, so odds of making it are maybe even, but we should learn a lot either way.”
The first stage typically performs a Boost-Back burn to adjust its impact point, flip itself over by means of nitrogen thrusters, followed by a Supersonic Retro-Propulsion burn to reduce its velocity to about 560 mph (900 km/h). This would set up the conditions for a final Landing burn on the ASDS, at a rate of just 4.5 mph (7.2 km/h), with a network of deployable hypersonic grid fins and four extendible legs. With the first part of its job done, the first stage set about the formidable task of returning to the ASDS. Three of the first stage’s Merlin 1D+ engines ignited for about 15 seconds at 1:29 a.m., establishing the proper conditions for a smooth touchdown on the ASDS. With four times as much energy, and eight times as much heating imparted on the returning stage during this GTO-bound ascent as during missions to low-Earth orbit, this landing was considered “Experimental” in nature, but ran like clockwork.
A few seconds shy of nine minutes since departing the Cape, the blackened and tired first stage alighted with precision on the deck of the drone ship. After issuing a clipped and tentative “The Falcon 9 first stage has landed on the drone ship” at 1:30 a.m. EDT, SpaceX followed up with the first image and electrifying confirmation: “Landing confirmed” at 1:31 a.m. “Second stage continuing to carry JCSAT-14 to a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit.” After several attempts to land its first-stage hardware on the ASDS deck, with mixed success since the beginning of 2015, SpaceX achieved success during its CRS-8 launch campaign on 8 April and has now repeated the feat in back-to-back launches. Mr. Musk has indicated that his company intends to make another attempt at a “land” landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone (LZ)-1 in the next few months.