For the sixth time in as many months, SpaceX sent one of its “Block 4” Upgraded Falcon 9 boosters out for a spin in the opening minutes of Tuesday morning (6 March), delivering the heavyweight Hispasat 30W-6 communications satellite to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), at an altitude of 22,300 miles (35,900 km) above the Home Planet. Liftoff took place shortly after midnight, at 12:33 a.m. EST, from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
The Block 4, which first flew in August of last year, represents a “transitional” variant of the booster, bridging the gap between the Upgraded Falcon 9 in service since December 2015 and the forthcoming Block 5, which is expected to generate a 7-8-percent thrust increase. Due to the size, mass and energy requirements of today’s Hispasat 30W-6 payload, no attempt was made to salvage the first stage, either at Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at the Cape or offshore on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). Before the launch, CEO Elon Musk tweeted that, as well as being the 50th flight by a “single-stick” Falcon 9 booster, today’s flight was the largest and heaviest geostationary satellite launched by SpaceX.
Hispasat 30W-6 has been built by Space Systems/Loral (SS/L), based upon its highly reliable SSL-1300 “bus”, which in 2015 recorded 100 of these satellites launched successfully into orbit. There are, of course, major differences in that centenary of satellites. Compared to the first-flown member of the fleet—Japan’s Superbird-A, launched in June 1989—today’s SSL-1300 produces eight times more power, a 30-percent longer operational lifespan and can house four times as many transponders. Madrid-based Hispasat selected SS/L in July 2014 to build what was then designated “Hispasat-1F” and described as “a multi-mission communications satellite”. It was intended that the new bird would replace the 2002-launched Hispasat-1D at 30 degrees West longitude, delivering television, broadband, corporate networks and other telecommunications applications in Europe and the Americas. At the time of the contract, launch was targeted for 2016.
In March 2016, Hispasat redesignated its entire fleet of on-orbit and under-construction satellites. The change came “as a response to the Group’s growing number of satellites and orbital positions and reflects efforts to maintain designation coherency” and reflected the need “to establish a logical method to automate future designations and provide informative content regarding satellites’ position and age”. As a result, all missions would be prefixed with the “Hispasat” primary name, following by an alphanumeric designator, referring to their orbital location and order of arrival. The aging Hispasat-1D at 30 degrees West correspondingly became “Hispasat 30W-4” and its replacement, Hispasat-1F, was redesignated “Hispasat 30W-6”.
Weighing-in at 13,430 pounds (6,100 kg), the new satellite is one of the largest and heaviest ever orbited by SpaceX and it is thus unsurprising that the booster’s maximum performance is required to get it to high geostationary altitude and the option of a first-stage landing has been deleted from this mission. Hispasat 30W-6 carries a pair of X-shaped solar array “paddles” for around 11.5 kilowatts of continuous electrical power provision and can support an operational lifespan of 15 years. Its 48 Ku-band transponders will cover much of continental Europe and North Africa—including the Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic and Canary Islands, the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira—as well as Canada and North and South America. Six Ka-band beams will also cover northwestern Africa and southeastern and central Europe, whilst a Ka-BSS band transponder will center on the Iberian Peninsula and a single C-band beam will provide coverage over Brazil.
Two years ago, Hispasat also reported that the satellite would provide broadband services to Morocco, both as a business-boosting tool and for connecting up to 4,000 schools in rural and remote locations. “Projects like this one,” it was noted, “show the importance of satellite infrastructure in facilitating universal internet access and reducing the digital divide.”
And earlier this month, agreements were reached to utilize Hispasat 30W-6 to bridge the digital divide between major towns and cities and rural, mountainous or sparsely populated regions of Spain, where internet provision is either exceptionally lacking or slow. Significantly, Hispasat 30W-6 is expected not only to provide additional Ku-band coverage in the remote Andean region of South America, but also will “expand the Group’s transatlantic capacity in Europe-America and America-Europe connectivity”. It also represents SpaceX’s seventh launch of SSL-1300 bus, coming on the heels of a pair of AsiaSat and JCSat birds in the summers of 2014 and 2016, respectively, and more recently the flights of EchoStar-23 and BulgariaSat-1 in March and June of last year.
Hispasat 30W-6 arrived at Cape Canaveral last month, transported via truck from SS/L’s facility, whereupon it was immediately put through pre-flight testing and fueling. “It has been an honor to work closely with the Hispasat team to implement advances on a powerful state-of-the-art communications satellite,” said Dario Zamarian, group president of SS/L. “With Hispasat 30W-6 now at launch base, we are helping drive the industry forward with innovations that will help reduce mass and improve performance, resulting in a better business case for satellite communications.”
One specific new technology is a photonics receiver, which will prove the value of using photonics for data-routing within the satellite itself. Developers hope that photonics receivers will replace traditional microwave components with optical, solid-state components to enable greater flexibility and communications throughput.
On 20 February, the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Upgraded Falcon 9 was rolled out of its horizontal integration facility to SLC-40 and put through a smooth Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines. Coincidentally, a continent away, on the West Coast, an almost identical booster was also rolled out Vandenberg Air Force Base’s SLC-4E in readiness for its own launch with the Paz radar-imaging satellite.
Launch was initially targeted for 35 minutes after midnight Sunday, 25 February, but SpaceX announced late Friday that the attempt had been scrubbed. “Standing down from this weekend’s launch attempt to conduct additional testing on the fairing’s pressurization system,” it tweeted. “Once complete, and pending Range availability, we will confirm a new targeted launch date.” Initial hopes that Hispasat 30W-6 might fly on Thursday, 1 March—on the same day as the Atlas V-boosted GOES-S—did not achieve Eastern Range approval, but by Friday it was revealed that authority had been gained for a launch attempt at 12:33 a.m. EST Tuesday, 6 March.
According to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, the outlook for Tuesday called for 90-percent-favorable conditions, but deteriorated markedly to just 40-percent in the event of a 24-hour scrub and turnaround to Wednesday, 7 March. This change was caused by the anticipated approach of a cold front towards Central Florida, with noticeably declining conditions on Tuesday afternoon and clouds and rain on Wednesday. However, the favorable forecast for a just-after-midnight Tuesday T-0 carried “a slight concern for thick clouds ahead of the front” as its sole potential violating factor.
With launch of Hispasat 30W-6 targeted to occur just 33 minutes after midnight, efforts to load the Upgraded Falcon 9 with liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) got underway late Monday evening. At 12:25 a.m. EST, as the countdown passed T-10 minutes, the terminal autosequencer was initiated and the nine Merlin 1D+ engines were chilled, ahead of ignition. At T-2 minutes, the Air Force Range Safety Officer verified that all ground-side assets were “Go for Launch” and the vehicle transitioned to Internal Power and assumed primary command of all critical functions, entering “Startup” at T-1 minute.
Three seconds before launch, the Merlins thundered to life, ramping up to a combined impulse of 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg). The stack departed SLC-40 precisely on time, at 12:33 a.m., offering a spectacular view and “midnight sunrise” for observers along the length of the Space Coast. The first stage provided the muscle for 2.5 minutes, before separating. Next came the ignition of the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Upgraded Falcon 9’s second stage, which performed two “burns” to deliver Hispasat 30W-6 into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), at an approximate altitude of 22,300 miles (35,900 km). A little under 33 minutes after launch, the satellite was successfully released into orbit.
This morning’s launch also marked the 50th flight by a “single-stick” member of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 fleet of boosters since its inaugural mission—carrying a qualification unit for the Dragon cargo spacecraft—way back in June 2010. Since then, the vehicle has moved through several iterations, with a significant enhancement in capability, from the 1.1 million pounds (500,000 kg) of thrust produced by the nine Merlin 1C engines on the Falcon 9 v1.0 first stage, through the 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg) from the Merlin 1D engines on the Falcon 9 v1.1, to the 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) from the Merlin 1D+ suite at the base of today’s Upgraded Falcon 9.
All told, the evolution of the rocket over the last eight years and 50 flights has seen its payload capacity more than double, from an estimated 23,000 pounds (10,450 kg) to low-Earth orbit for the Falcon 9 v1.0 to 50,300 pounds (22,800 kg) for the Upgraded Falcon 9. And size matters, too, for today’s 230-foot-high (70-meter) booster is a full 50 feet (15 meters) taller than its pathfinding ancestor of June 2010.
The Falcon 9 v1.0 flew five missions from SLC-40 until it was retired in March 2013, delivering three Dragon cargo ships to the International Space Station (ISS). On the whole, its performance was successful, but during its fourth launch in October 2012 a thrust shortfall caused its Orbcomm OG-2 secondary payload to be injected into a lower-than-intended orbit. In September 2013, the next-generation Falcon 9 v1.1 entered service, inaugurating SpaceX operations at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. It flew 15 times, through January 2016, launching five Dragons and—for the first time—communications satellites to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Unlike the Falcon 9 v1.0, however, it also succumbed to the program’s first catastrophic, in-flight failure, when it exploded during ascent in June 2015, destroying the CRS-7 Dragon.
The current configuration, variously and unofficially described as “Full Thrust” or “v1.2” or “Upgraded Falcon 9”, made its maiden flight in December 2015 and immediately stamped its advanced credentials, by bringing its first stage spectacularly down onto Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at the Cape. Since then, and including this morning’s launch of Hispasat 30W-6, no fewer than 30 Upgraded Falcon 9s have flown from SLC-40 on the East Coast or SLC-4E on the West Coast, delivering 15 payloads to GTO, six Dragons to the space station and a multitude of others, including 40 Iridium NEXT communications satellites and a pair of secretive missions for U.S. Government sponsors. Juxtaposed against this record of success was the catastrophic on-the-pad explosion of the Amos-6 booster in September 2016.
The reusability of first-stage hardware, which seemed unimaginable to many a little over two years ago, has now engendered a peculiar sense of appearing “commonplace”. Since December 2015, no less than 21 Upgraded Falcon 9 first stages have returned safely to Earth. Scarred, scorched and battered from the extremes of highly dynamic launches and high-energy re-entries, nine made it back to LZ-1 and the others have alighted on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.
It has taken SpaceX almost eight years to reach its 50th “single-stick” Falcon 9 flight, but with the launch cadence having dramatically increased—from a paltry two missions per annum in 2010 and 2012, rising to just three in 2013, doubling to six in 2014 and 2015, then taking significant leaps to eight in 2016 and a personal-best-beating 18 last year—it can be expected that not many more summers will pass before the Hawthorne, Calif.-based organization logs No. 100.