For the first time in its 14-year history, SpaceX has successfully launched an eighth mission within a single calendar year. Its Upgraded Falcon 9 booster—first flown last December—lifted off from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 1:26 a.m. EDT Sunday, 14 August. Roaring into the Florida night under the 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) of thrust from its nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines, the vehicle was tasked with delivering the heavyweight JCSAT-16 communications satellite into a 22,300-mile (35,700-km) Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) on behalf of Tokyo-based SKY Perfect JSAT Group.
Less than 10 minutes after launch, as the Upgraded Falcon 9’s second stage set to work boosting JCSAT-16 to orbit, the first stage returned under its own power to accomplish a smooth touchdown on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), nicknamed “Of Course I Still Love You.” The latter was located about 420 miles (680 km) off the Cape Canaveral coast, in the Atlantic Ocean. This was the sixth wholly successful landing of Upgraded Falcon 9 first-stage hardware, and the fourth on the drone ship, within the last eight months.
2016 has proven spectacularly successful for SpaceX, as the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services company looks back on the disappointment of its first Loss of Vehicle incident in June 2015 and ahead to its pivotal role in NASA’s Commercial Crew ambitions from fall 2017 onward. Since it inaugurated operations with its Upgraded Falcon 9 in December 2015, SpaceX has now flown eight of these boosters, as well as the swansong of its older-specification Falcon 9 v1.1. Putting this into context, the Falcon 9 booster family commenced flight operations back in June 2010, flying twice that year, twice in 2012, three times in 2013, six times in 2014, and seven times—one of which failed to achieve orbit—last year. Over the past six years, the Falcon 9 has moved through its v1.0, v1.1, and into its current Upgraded configurations, as various modifications and the use of the Merlin 1C, Merlin 1D, and Merlin 1D+ engines have been pressed into service.
All told, in 2016 alone, the company has delivered NASA’s Jason-3 payload, two Dragon cargo ships toward the International Space Station (ISS), and six commercial communications satellites to GTO. Drawing on the enhanced capabilities of the Upgraded Falcon 9, it has also seen far greater adherence to launch schedules and has seen its first-stage hardware return through the atmosphere to touchdown—fully successfully in 50 percent of cases—on the deck of the ASDS or on solid ground, at Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at the Cape.
Tonight’s launch was the second SKY Perfect JSAT Group satellite to be flown atop a SpaceX vehicle, following JCSAT-14 in May 2016. Both satellites were fabricated by Space Systems/Loral, centered upon the proven SSL-1300 “bus,” with JCSAT-16 scheduled to serve as an on-orbit spare, occupying a “slot” between 124-162 degrees East longitude. From this orbit, it will spend up to 15 years supporting the growing demand for telecommunications infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific Region. Current plans call for JCSAT-15 to fly aboard a European Ariane 5 booster, later in 2016, with contracts also signed earlier this year between SKY Perfect JSAT Group and Lockheed Martin to build JCSAT-17. The launch provider for the latter satellite, targeted to fly after 2019, has yet to be determined.
In readiness for tonight’s launch, JCSAT-16 itself arrived at the Cape in mid-July, where it was fueled and underwent final checks, ahead of encapsulation within the Payload Fairing (PLF) and installation onto the Upgraded Falcon 9. The entire 230-foot-tall (70-meter) booster was transported from its horizontal integration facility to SLC-40 last week, and a customary Static Fire Test of the nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines was conducted late Wednesday, 10 August. Successful completion of this milestone allowed SpaceX to press ahead with final flight-readiness meetings, and, with weather conditions expected to reach 80-percent favorable, efforts entered high gear to aim for the opening launch attempt on Sunday morning. For both the primary attempt on Sunday and a backup opportunity on Monday, 15 August, SpaceX had the luxury of a spacious two-hour “window,” extending from 1:26 a.m. through 3:26 a.m. EDT.
Unlike previous Falcon 9s, the Upgraded variant benefits from the capability to late-load its liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) propellants. This does not typically begin until around 35 minutes before T-0. “To gain more power from the rocket, the propellants are chilled-down with the LOX being cooled so much it has a slushy constitution,” noted AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker. “This supercooling of the fuel means that the fueling must be done at the last minute and indeed it only finishes two minutes before launch. There is very little hold time available once the rocket is fueled, which is why the launch window is shortened once fueling starts.”
As darkness fell over the Space Coast, efforts to prepare the booster and its systems for launch continued. By this point, the weather conditions had improved from 80-percent favorable to 90-percent favorable. At 12:42 a.m. EDT, with around 42 minutes remaining before the opening of tonight’s two-hour launch window, a formal “Go” was issued to begin loading propellants aboard the vehicle. With on-time crispness, RP-1 began flowing into both the first and second stages, followed shortly thereafter by the onset of liquid oxygen tanking into the first stage. By T-20 minutes, liquid oxygen had also begun to flow into the second stage, whose Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine would support two “burns” to inject JCSAT-16 into GTO. Meanwhile, JCSAT-16 itself was transferred from external power utilities to its on-board batteries, which would power it through ascent until the time came to deploy its electricity-generating solar arrays on-orbit. The SSL satellite was confirmed on internal power at 1:11 a.m.
A final “Go/No-Go” poll of all stations took place at T-13 minutes, allowing flight controllers to move into Terminal Countdown operations at T-10 minutes. During this period, the nine Merlin 1D+ engines were chilled, in order to thermally condition them, ahead of ignition. The launch pad’s “strongback” was retracted, and the Flight Termination System (FTS) was placed onto internal power and armed. Fueling of the booster concluded, and at T-60 seconds the 53 nozzles of the Niagara deluge system flooded SLC-40 with 30,000 gallons (113,500 liters) of water per minute to suppress acoustic energy at T-0.
Precisely on the opening of the launch window, the Upgraded Falcon 9 powered off the pad under the combined impulse of 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) from its Merlin 1D+ suite. Eighty seconds into the ascent, the vehicle passed through a period of maximum aerodynamic turbulence on its airframe—colloquially known as “Max Q”—as the engines continued to burn hot and hard. Two-and-a-half minutes after leaving SLC-40, the engines were shutdown and a quartet of pneumatic “pushers” separated the first stage from the stack. Shortly before 1:29 a.m., the second stage’s Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine, with a propulsive output of 210,000 pounds (92,250 kg), roared to life for the first of its two burns. A minute later, the bulbous PLF was jettisoned, exposing JCSAT-16 to the space environment for the very first time.
With the second stage well on its way toward delivering SKY Perfect JSAT Group’s bird up to GTO altitude, the discarded first stage began its second mission of the evening: to return from the edge of space and alight smoothly on the deck of the ASDS. Always a complex procedure, and accomplished fully successfully only three times, tonight’s attempt was further complicated by the high-velocity and high-energy demands of its payload. Moreover, previous landing attempts had featured three burns, whereas tonight’s attempt would employ just one. This burn was underway by 1:33 a.m., and the first stage had reached a condition just below the speed of sound around a minute later. Accompanied by spectacular live video from the returning booster, a smooth touchdown on the ASDS was achieved at 1:35 a.m.
Had the ongoing Olympic Games offered an award for such feats, surely SpaceX would have scored Gold, as it nailed its sixth wholly successful landing of an Upgraded Falcon 9. Four smooth ASDS landings were achieved in April, May, June, and July 2016, together with a paid of LZ-1 touchdowns in December 2015 and last month.
As the first stage touched down, dead-center, on the symbolic “X” in the middle of the ASDS deck, the Upgraded Falcon 9’s second stage wrapped up its first burn at 1:35 a.m. and entered a protracted phase of “coasting,” ahead of the second burn. This took place at 1:52 a.m., about 26 minutes and 30 seconds after launch, and ran for barely a minute, before shutting down for the final time. JCSAT-16 was deployed at 32 minutes into the mission, bound for geostationary orbit. Tonight’s mission marked SpaceX’s fifth GTO-bound launch of the year and its sixth overall GTO-bound payload of 2016 deployed. This represents 40 percent of SpaceX’s entire tally of GTO-headed missions within the first eight months of 2016 alone. Next up is the GTO-bound Amos-6 communications satellite for Spacecom, which is tracking an early September flight from SLC-40.