A powerful (and highly controversial) communications satellite for Turkey smoothly rode a four-times-flown Falcon 9 booster into orbit Thursday night from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. Liftoff of the veteran B1060 core took place at 9:15 p.m. EST, about an hour into an expansive four-hour “window”. It was the third mission out of the newly-renamed U.S. Space Force installation, following last month’s launches of the clandestine NROL-44 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office atop a Delta IV Heavy and SiriusXM’s SXM-7 communications satellite aboard a Falcon 9.
For Thursday’s flight, Türksat 5A—a joint-use civilian and military payload, which marks SpaceX’s 34th launch of a commercial geostationary communications satellite since December 2013—kicks off an ambitious 2021 manifest for the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider; a manifest which may see as many as 48 missions over the next dozen months.
Weather conditions for Thursday’s hours-of-darkness launch attempt were predicted to be about 70-percent favorable. “A strong low-pressure system is moving across the Deep South this morning with its associated cold front draped along the Central Gulf Coast,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at the newly-renamed Patrick Space Force Base in its Thursday morning update.
“This system will progress eastward through the day, with the cold front expected in North Florida this evening. Models continue to show the front breaking up as it crosses the state this evening, with the boundary itself and notable precipitation chances not expected to arrive until after the launch window.” However, it was cautioned that increasing levels of cloudiness during tonight’s four-hour window will remain a “watch item”.
Preparations for tonight’s launch and landing of the Falcon 9’s first-stage “core” originally got underway before New Year, when the Finn Falgout tug began the process of towing the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, out to a position some 410 miles (670 km) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.
However, a mechanical issue with Finn Falgout reportedly forced them to return to port and the drone ship—as well as the fairing recovery vessels, Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief—put back out to sea earlier this week. For JRTI, tonight’s successful recovery of B1060 marked its 14th “catch” of a Falcon 9 core, having previously snared seven returning first stages in the Pacific Ocean between January 2017 and January 2019 and a further six first stages in the Atlantic Ocean between June 2020 and last month.
And if last year’s reusability statistics are anything to go by, 2021 can expect to see a hardcore group of Falcon 9 first stages flying repeat missions. The core for tonight’s mission, B1060, has now launched on four occasions. It first saw service last 30 June, when it helped boost the Space Force’s third Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellite towards a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), about 12,550 miles (20,200 km) above the planet.
B1060 launched again on 3 September and 24 October—the latter of which marked the 100th flight of a Falcon-class rocket—and lifted a total of 120 Starlink internet communications satellites totaling over 68,800 pounds (31,200 kg) into low-Earth orbit. All three missions ended with ASDS landings.
Flying its fourth time tonight, B1060 becomes only the eighth Falcon 9 core to log this many launches. On its most recent mission in October, it also recorded the shortest interval (only 117 days) of any Falcon 9 first stage to complete three missions.
Primary payload was the 7,700-pound (3,500 kg) Türksat-5A, the first of two new satellites developed and fabricated by Airbus Defence and Space and Turkish Aerospace Industries to provide Ku-band communications and direct-broadcast television services across a broad swath of territory covering eastern England to western China on behalf of the Ankara-based provider, Türksat.
Based upon the all-electric version of Airbus’ EuroStar E3000 satellite “bus”, Türksat-5A will eventually enter a geosynchronous “slot” at 31 degrees East longitude for 15 years of operational service. Later in 2021, another Falcon 9 will loft the identical Türksat-5B towards a geostationary slot at 42 degrees East.
In late October, protests were reported outside SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters in response to previous Türksat satellites having been used to guide and command Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) on bombing missions over Libya, Syria and other countries, with fears that the Türksat-5A/5B network may greatly expand the range and capability of such systems.
Contracts to build the two satellites were awarded to Airbus in November 2017 and both have adhered with remarkable closeness to their original launch dates: Türksat-5A was originally targeted to fly in 2020, Türksat-5B in 2021. SpaceX received contracts to launch both satellites in November 2017.
“The satellite’s payload was developed in Airbus UK clean rooms and then coupled with the service module in Toulouse, France, where the assembly, integration and testing was done,” Guilhem Boltz of Airbus Defence and Space told AmericaSpace. “Some critical elements of the service module came from other European Airbus sites or suppliers. Our customer’s teams also came to Toulouse for various reviews, as well as training sessions for the crew operating the satellite, in our Space Academy, also located in Toulouse.”
Following formal acceptance reviews by Airbus Defence and Space and Türksat representatives in late October 2020, the satellite and its ground support equipment were flown into Florida in early December to be fueled and readied for launch.
B1060 provided the first-stage muscle to get tonight’s mission off the ground, roaring into the darkened Florida sky atop a column of dazzling fire and more than 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) of thrust. After burning for a little over two minutes, the core separated from the stack and commenced its descent back to the ASDS, leaving the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage to continue the uphill boost.
However, since the Falcon 9 lacks the capability to deliver its payload directly to a geostationary altitude, some 22,600 miles (35,900 km) above Earth, Türksat-5A will utilize its own propulsion assets over the next four to six months to establish itself in its proper operational “slot”.
“The satellite will be delivered on a very elliptical orbit whose hypogea is far from that required”, about 22,000 miles (36,000 km), Mr. Boltz told us. “The satellite will use its plasmic (full-electric) propulsion to complete its four-to-six-month-long journey. This orbit-raising will use around two-thirds of the propellant, while the station-keeping all along the satellite life will use the rest.”