SpaceX is scheduled to launch their first Florida mission of 2019 on Thursday evening, targeting liftoff from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with their second three-times-used Falcon 9 booster at 8:45 p.m. EST, at the opening of a 32-minute window.
Laden with a powerful Indonesian communications satellite and multitude of rideshare customers – including an Israeli lunar lander and an experimental U.S. Air Force payload – the launch will mark SpaceX’s second flight of 2019, following the completion of the Iridium NEXT constellation back in January.
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The Block 5 is characterized by uprated thrust on its Merlin 1D+ engines (1.7 million pounds at liftoff), strengthened landing legs, enhanced flight control systems and the capability to withstand an intensified heating regime as it returns from higher-energy GTO-bound launches.
The primary payload is the 9,000-pound (4,100-kilogram) PSN-6 satellite, otherwise known as “Nusantara Satu”—Indonesian for “one archipelago”, indicative of the fact that its baseline 15-year mission will bring voice and data communications capability, together with broadband internet and video distribution services to the entire Indonesian archipelago. It will provide a vital link to Indonesia’s remote islands and villages to access emergency services, education and other benefits. The satellite has been fabricated by Space Systems/Loral (SS/L), on the bones of its tried-and-true SSL-1300 “bus”, which can provide total power ranges from 5-12 kilowatts and accommodation for up to 70 active C-band and Ku-band transponders.
Originally envisaged as a Boeing-built payload, a requisite co-passenger apparently could not be found with the mandated timeframe, and in late 2014 Indonesian satellite operator PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara (PSN) signed with SS/L instead. “PSN has a charter to use satellites to provide innovative communications solutions that help improve lives and support economic growth in remote regions,” said SS/L President John Celli at the time. “We are very glad to have the opportunity to help PSN further this endeavour by providing not just a satellite, but a package of services to support its business goals, including launch.” As part of its contract, SS/L negotiated launch services through SpaceX.
Joining the launch and built by Applied Defense Systems, the geostationary co-passenger, known by the rather drab designator of “S5”, is a 130-pound (60-kilogram) Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) payload for space situational awareness activities. Contracts for S5 were signed between AFRL and Blue Canyon Technologies, Inc., of Boulder, Colo., back in September 2017.
It was noted that the S5 microsat would “measure the feasibility and affordability of developing low-cost constellations for routine and frequent updates to the GEO space catalog”—in essence, detecting, locating and inspecting other objects at geostationary altitude—and that it includes “ultra-precise attitude-control systems that allow for accurate knowledge and fine-pointing of the satellite payloads”.
Perhaps more visually significant on this mission, though, is the presence of the 1,290-pound (585-kilogram) Beresheet (“Genesis”) lunar lander, developed by Israel’s SpaceIL organization, which was originally conceived as a competitor for the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize. Five international teams competed for the prize, which ultimately went unclaimed, but remains active through the Lunar X-Prize as a non-cash competition.
SpaceIL’s lander was originally named “Sparrow” and would have fulfilled the Google Lunar X-Prize requirement of traversing up to 1,600 feet (500 meters) across the Moon’s surface by a unique rocket-propelled “hopping” mechanism. Equipped with a magnetometer and retroreflector array, it is expected that Beresheet—which represents Israel’s first foray beyond low-Earth orbit, as well as the lightest spacecraft ever to land on the Moon and the first privately-funded lunar lander—will survive for a couple of days on the surface.
At a cost of about $90 million, only $2 million comes from the government of Israel, most of the rest was donated by entrepreneur Morris Kahn and a Los Angeles charity supporting Israel called the Adelson Family Foundation.
Only the U.S. Russia and China – governments – have ever launched anything to and successfully landed on the moon.
And the little 1,300 pound lunar lander will be the first to deploy of the three payloads after launch, sitting at the top of the stack, and will fly a series of orbits – each wider and wider – until it intercepts the moon and enters lunar orbit in early April. A landing would follow about a week later, in a region named Mare Serenitatis.
Both S5 and Beresheet are managed aboard this mission by Seattle, Wash.-based Spaceflight Industries, Inc., which organizes “rideshares” for secondary payloads via a range of launch vehicles, including Russia’s Dnepr and Soyuz, Northrop Grumman’s Antares and SpaceX’s Upgraded Falcon 9. Last fall, the organization completed its first-ever purchase of an entire SpaceX rocket to deliver 64 satellites into orbit on its SSO-A Smallsat Express.
However, whereas that multitude of payloads traveled to low-Earth orbit, Thursday’s mission will mark a milestone by going far beyond: delivering S-5 to GTO and Beresheet towards the Moon.
“This is an important mission for Spaceflight as we expand and evolve our customer offerings,” said Curt Blake, CEO of Spaceflight Industries, Inc. “The launches we pursue continue to get more sophisticated and demonstrate that our expertise goes beyond identifying and scheduling launches. We also offer valuable integration and deployment services that enable our customers to reach space in a cost-effective manner and get to their desired orbit successfully. With this mission, Spaceflight is demonstrating that the Moon is in reach.”
In December 2018, the PSN-6 communications satellite arrived at Cape Canaveral for pre-launch processing, fueling and integration. Last week, in readiness for an oceanic landing attempt for the mission, the East Coast-based Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS)—nicknamed “Of Course I Still Love You”—headed out to sea. And late on 18 February, the rocket’s nine Merlin 1D+ engines ignited on SLC-40 for the now-customary Static Fire Test.
With this major pre-launch milestone completed, SpaceX returned the booster to the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) for payload installation and final preps for flight.
Additionally, SpaceX’s support ship “Mr Steven” is joining the mission, spotted leaving Port Canaveral and being tracked on Twitter. Sporting a giant ‘catcher’s mitt’ net, the ship conducted trial tests in the Atlantic this past week leading up to launch, but so far has unsuccessfully tried catching payload fairings from previous launches from California.
Weather conditions for the primary (Thursday) and backup (Friday) launch attempts are expected to be highly favorable, with only a 20-percent likelihood of a weather-related scrub. “Winds will remain out of the southeast through the week as ridging remains anchored over the western Atlantic,” noted the U.S. Air Force 45th Weather Squadron at nearby Patrick Air Force Base, “keeping mid-levels of the atmosphere dry and limiting any thunderstorm activity.”
Primary weather threats will be cumulus clouds from coastal showers and a slight risk of thick cloud layers forming.