A seven-times-flown Falcon 9 booster kicked off June in fine style on Wednesday, by delivering a powerful Egyptian communications satellite on the first leg of its uphill trek to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Nilesat-301, set to be emplaced at 7.0 degrees West longitude for a minimum 15-year operational life span, rose from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., at 5:04 p.m. EDT.
Eight minutes later, the B1062 core stage twirled and pirouetted homeward to alight on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, as SpaceX gears up for multiple flights this month, including a previously undisclosed classified mission for the U.S. Government. However, Friday’s planned CRS-25 launch to the International Space Station (ISS) has formally met with delay until the end of June, following elevated vapor readings during propellant loading of the Cargo Dragon spacecraft.
Tonight’s flight marked the 23rd Falcon 9 launch in 2022’s first half, a remarkable quickfire cadence attained using only ten boosters. And for its own part, B1062 became the sixth Falcon 9 core to log a seventh launch.
First flown in November 2020, she has delivered a pair of Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellites for the U.S. Space Force, more than a hundred Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites and a grand total of eight humans on last September’s all-civilian Inspiration4 and April’s all-private Ax-1 missions. Her most recent launch in late April set a new record of just 21 days between two flights by the same booster.
Aboard tonight’s mission was Nilesat-301, tasked with providing Ku-band communications services for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region, in addition to countries in Southern Africa and the Nile Basin. It will also furnish expanded broadband connectivity over Egypt in the Ka-band. During the first few years of its operational life, Nilesat-301 will function in tandem with Nilesat-201, which launched atop a European Ariane 5 booster back in August 2010.
Since then, Nilesat-201 has provided Direct-to-Home (DTH) television and radio broadcasting, together with high-speed data connectivity across the MENA Region, with an expectation that it will be retired around 2028. Nilesat-301 will then assume primary responsibility for MENA Region at the 7.0 degrees West orbital “slot”. Nilesat contracted with SpaceX in February 2020 to launch the satellite aboard a Falcon 9 booster from Cape Canaveral, marking the first collaboration between the two organizations.
Contracts to build Nilesat-301 were signed between Thales Alenia Space and Nilesat back in December 2019, with an expectation that the approximately 9,000-pound (4,100-kilogram) satellite would require a 25-month development timeline, producing a launch in the first quarter of 2022. Based upon Thales’ tried-and-true Spacebus 4000-B2 platform, with a 100-volt power bus and a capability to accommodate a payload power of up to 6.5 kilowatts and a weight of some 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms), the satellite was designed to enjoy an operational life span of up to 15 years.
Earlier this spring, Nilesat-301 was loaded into its transport canister for transfer from Thales’ facility in Cannes, France, to the Cape. Original hopes to airlift the satellite aboard a Russian Antonov An-124 proved impossible in the weeks after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the resultant sanctions imposed by the West. It was reportedly decided to deliver Nilesat-301 and the SES-22 communications satellite—also slated for a Falcon 9 ride—together via ship. This triggered a delay in the launches of both missions to June.
Weather conditions for Wednesday’s opening launch attempt were projected to be 60-percent favorable, improving to 70 percent in the event of a 24-hour slip to Thursday. “A light pressure gradient across the state will allow both the Gulf and Atlantic sea-breezes to develop and move inland during the early afternoon over the next few days, serving as the primary driver for shower and thunderstorm development,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in its L-1 update.
“Each day, the potential for showers and storms will generally be highest in the early afternoon across the Spaceport, shifting to the interior of the peninsula later in the afternoon,” it added. “However, there will be a threat for a few storms to drift back towards the East Coast in the evening with westerly steering flow.”
Primary concerns affecting both launch opportunities on Wednesday and Thursday were cumulus clouds from any nearby activity and anvil clouds from inland storms. Earlier this week, the veteran drone ship, “Just Read the Instructions”, put to sea from Port Canaveral, bound for a position about 420 miles (680 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.
And the booster herself—with B1062 blackened and scorched from six prior launches and high-energy re-entries, teamed with a sparkling-new second stage—was observed vertical on SLC-40 early Wednesday morning. The expansive “launch window” for both Wednesday and Thursday extended to almost 2.5 hours.
Liftoff occurred on time at 5:04 p.m. EDT and B1062 powered smoothly uphill, her nine Merlin 1D+ engines delivering 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kilograms) of thrust for the first 2.5 minutes of ascent. The core was then discarded to begin her descent to land on the deck of JRTI. In the meantime, the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage ignited for an initial six-minute “burn” to pre-position Nilesat-301 for deployment. Shutting down at 8.5 minutes into the flight, the stack coasted for another half-hour, ahead of satellite deployment at 33 minutes after launch.
In the meantime, the CRS-25 mission—flying under the banner of SpaceX’s second-round Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) contract with NASA—has met with several weeks of delay. Originally targeted to fly from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 10:22 a.m. EDT Saturday, 10 June, an issue was observed last weekend during propellant loading of the Cargo Dragon. Elevated vapor readings of monomethyl hydrazine were detected in an isolated region of the spacecraft’s Draco thruster system.
In response to the incident, all propellant and oxidizer were drained from that region to permit deeper inspections and tests. Yesterday, NASA announced that it is presently targeting a revised No Earlier Than (NET) date of 28 June for CRS-25. Two days after launch, Expedition 67 crew members Jessica Watkins and Samantha Cristoforetti will oversee the autonomous docking of the Cargo Dragon at the ISS, where it will remain for about a month.