Three weeks after spectacularly bringing its Upgraded Falcon 9 first-stage hardware to a smooth touchdown on Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., SpaceX is primed to deliver a personal-best-beating eighth mission to space in a single calendar year. Launch of the next Upgraded Falcon 9 is presently targeted to occur from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 during a two-hour “window,” extending from 1:26 a.m. through 3:26 a.m. EDT Sunday, 14 August. The mission will deliver the JCSAT-16 communications satellite toward a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) of approximately 22,300 miles (35,700 km) altitude, on behalf of Tokyo-headquartered SKY Perfect JSAT Group. Due to the high-energy nature of this mission’s trajectory, a “land” landing on LZ-1 is not scheduled and the Upgraded Falcon 9 hardware will instead attempt to alight on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic Ocean.
The first two-thirds of 2016 have proven a spectacular period for SpaceX, with no fewer than seven missions successfully completed. These included a fond farewell to the older-specification Falcon 9 v1.1 booster on its swansong voyage to deliver NASA’s Jason-3 payload in January, followed by a pair of Dragon cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS): CRS-8 in April and CRS-9 in July, both funded under the initial $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA. These achievements were complemented by four commercial missions between March and June, which delivered five communications satellites to GTO. Among these was SES-9, which—at 11,620 pounds (5,270 kg)—represents SpaceX’s single heaviest GTO-bound payload to date.
Another of these commercial payloads included the 6 May flight of JCSAT-14, which saw the first successful landing of an Upgraded Falcon 9 first stage on the ASDS after a GTO-bound launch. SpaceX has long stressed that the high-energy and high-velocity demands of the GTO ascent profile—which transports its payload toward an eventual location a hundred times higher than the ISS orbit—impose correspondingly higher stresses on the returning first stages. Nonetheless, a successful “experimental” attempt was made in March to guide the returning first stage from the SES-9 launch to the ASDS, but it was lost on impact. Another attempt, on 6 May, succeeded, against many odds, but more recently in June the returning first stage from the ABS-2A and Eutelsat 117 West B double-deployment mission succumbed to a “hard landing” and failed.
Bookending these remarkable efforts, of course, were the “land” landings at LZ-1 achieved in December 2015 at the conclusion of the Orbcomm Generation-2 (OG-2) mission and last month at the close of the ISS-bound CRS-9. It seems unlikely that LZ-1 landings at the end of GTO flights will be attempted in the near future, for the greater energy requirement to lift heavyweight payloads to such high orbits invariably means that less available propellant is kept in reserve for the critical series of engine “burns” needed to bring the first stage back through the atmosphere to achieve a precise landing. As such, the forthcoming launch of JCSAT-16 will aim for the ASDS “Of Course I Still Love You,” which was drawn out to sea from Port of Cape Canaveral by the Elsbeth III tug at 5:36 p.m. EDT Tuesday, 9 August, bound for a position about 420 miles (680 km) offshore.
With Sunday’s flight, SpaceX will have launched eight missions inside a single calendar year, thereby eclipsing its previous record of seven flights, set in 2015. Indeed, when one counts the CRS-7 failure, last June—whose Falcon 9 v1.1 was lost during first-stage ascent—2016 has already seen a personal-best-beating seven successful missions for the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services provider. Added to this, JCSAT-16 marks its 11th GTO-bound flight since December 2013 and, interestingly, 40 percent of SpaceX’s entire tally of GTO-bound missions achieved to date have launched in 2016.
Sunday’s primary payload is no stranger to SpaceX, for JCSAT-16 is similar in physical shape and structure to the May-launched JCSAT-14. Both satellites were fabricated by Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) on the framework of its highly reliable SSL-1300 “bus,” which offers payload power ranges between 5-12 kilowatts and can support up to 70 active transponders. Specifically, JCSAT-16—designed to support a 15-year operational lifespan—will serve as a multi-mission Ku- and Ka-band satellite, providing services for video distribution, data-transfer communications, and redundancy across the rest of the JCSAT fleet. It will produce around 8.5 kilowatts of electrical power and, according to SS/L, is tasked with meeting “the growing demand for telecommunications infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific Region.” It will be employed “at a broad range of orbital locations” and “will ensure continuous service and … will be available as a backup to the existing fleet.”
The new satellite 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 next two decades, several JCSAT birds—built by Hughes, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and SS/L—were inserted into orbit.
Contracts to built JCSAT-16 were awarded in April 2014, part of a deal which also included the construction of its sister, JCSAT-15. According to an SS/L news release, the two satellites would be used “for services such as video distribution, data-transfer communications and backup service capabilities in Japan and neighboring regions.” JCSAT-15 was manifested aboard a European Ariane 5 booster and JCSAT-16 aboard an Upgraded Falcon 9. In March 2016, SKY Perfect JSAT Group contracted with Kratos Defense & Security Solutions for the assembly of a 29.5-foot-diameter (9-meter) Tracking, Telemetry and Control (TT&C) antenna and associated Radio Frequency (RF) system at the Superbird Platform West (SPW) ground station in Yamaguchi, Japan. This new antenna system will be dedicated specifically to JCSAT-16 operations.
On 13 July 2016, SS/L announced that JCSAT-16 had arrived at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for pre-flight fueling, testing, and encapsulation inside the bulbous Payload Fairing (PLF), ahead of integration aboard the Upgraded Falcon 9. Current projections call for the mission to launch during a two-hour “window,” which extends from 1:26 a.m. through 3:26 a.m. EDT Sunday, with a backup opportunity at precisely the same times on Monday morning. In readiness for launch, the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Upgraded Falcon 9 was moved horizontally from its nearby processing facility and erected at SLC-40 for the standard Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines. This reportedly occurred late Wednesday, 10 August.
Weather conditions for Sunday’s opening launch attempt are expected to be around 80-percent favorable, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. “Morning coastal showers will become the primary weather threat for the next few days,” the 45th noted in its evening update on Thursday, 11 August. “On Sunday, another upper-level inverted trough is forecast to approach the east coast of Florida, most likely moving through the Space Coast after the launch window. The primary weather concerns are cumulus clouds associated with the coastal showers and thick clouds associated with the upper-level trough.” In the event of a 24-hour scrub to Monday, whose launch window will also extend from 1:26 a.m. through 3:26 a.m. EDT, conditions are expected to worsen to 70-percent favorable. “During the day Sunday, the upper-level inverted trough will transit through the southern half of the Florida peninsula, creating upper-level cloudiness and enhancing the morning coastal showers,” it was explained. “The trough will likely remain in the area through the [Monday backup] launch window. The main weather concerns remain cumulus clouds and a thick cloud layer.”
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 on launch day. 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 PLF jettisoned—to deliver JCSAT-16 into its correct orbital position. According to SKY Perfect JSAT Group, the satellite will occupy a “slot” between 124-162 degrees East longitude.
Thus will conclude the second of two JCSAT missions atop Falcon 9 vehicles in 2016. With JCSAT-15 manifested for launch later this year aboard an Ariane 5, SKY Perfect JSAT Group selected Lockheed Martin in February 2016 to build its JCSAT-17 satellite. Based around LM’s A2100 “bus”—which boasts a modular structure, capable of generating up to 15 kilowatts of electrical power, thanks to high-efficiency solar cells, radiation-cooled traveling-wave tube assemblies, and improved heat-pipe design—JCSAT-17 will carry an S-band mobile communications payload, as well as C- and Ku-band capability to serve East Asia and Japan. No launch provider has yet been selected.
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