On its fourth Falcon 9 launch in the opening half of October, SpaceX has lofted its fourth geostationary-bound payload of the year with Saturday’s pre-dawn liftoff from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. Launch of the three-times-used B1069 core—which suffered potentially career-ending damage after her first mission last December, then embarked on a new lease of life in the summer—occurred at 1:22 a.m. EDT, laden with the heavyweight Hotbird 13F communications satellite.
It has been an impressive reversal of fortunes for B1069, which entered SpaceX’s Falcon 9 fleet just before Christmas last year to deliver the CRS-24 Cargo Dragon and 6,500 pounds (2,590 kilograms) of equipment, payloads and supplies for the Expedition 66 crew on board the International Space Station (ISS). Minutes after boosting CRS-24 uphill, B1069 returned towards a seemingly routine touchdown on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, situated offshore in the Atlantic.
But her first landing attempt almost proved to be her last. According to Derek Wise in commentary and imagery on Space Explored, B1069 touched down “hard” and far from center, right at one of the drone ship’s corners. She knocked down an I-beam perimeter rail and caused significant denting to JRTI’s robotic “Octagrabber” and her entire suite of nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines.
When the hapless booster returned to Port Canaveral a few days later, she exhibited a worrisome sideways tilt. After her narrow brush with death, B1069 was rendered out of service for the first half of 2022 as she underwent repairs and modifications.
Outfitted with a sparkling new suite of Merlins at her base, four new landing legs and a brand-new second stage, the remarkably revived booster returned to service in late August to lift 54 Starlink internet communications satellites—totaling 36,800 pounds (16,700 kilograms)—into low-Earth orbit. Her second mission proved charmed and B1069 returned to a smooth touchdown on the ASDS, “A Shortfall of Gravitas”.
Less than seven weeks later, she was back in business for her third trek to space. And the weather outlook appeared highly promising, with the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base predicting a 90-percent probability of acceptable conditions for the primary “launch window” on Friday night and a backup opportunity on Saturday night.
“A low-pressure system currently located in northern Canada is dragging a surface front across the Midwest, the latter of which is anticipated to move through the Florida peninsula,” the 45th noted in its Wednesday morning update. “The quick-moving front is expected to be well south of the Spaceport by Friday evening and high pressure should dominate after frontal passage.
“Drier, cooler air along with higher winds filtering in from the north in the wake of the front should tamper any significant shower coverage this weekend,” it was added, “and result in favorable launch conditions for both the primary and backup launch opportunities.”
In readiness for SpaceX’s fourth mission in the first half of October, JRTI put to sea out of Port Canaveral late Monday, bound for a position about 412 miles (665 kilometers) downrange from the launch site. It marked an impressive turnaround for this drone ship, which was recording its third Falcon 9 “catch” in less than a month; most recently, JRTI recovered the first-time-flown B1077 core after lofting Dragon Endurance and her crew of NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Japan’s Koichi Wakata and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina just last week.
Principal payload aboard tonight’s mission was Hotbird 13F, one of a pair of high-powered, direct-to-home communications satellites which will replace the aging Hotbird 8, 9 and 10 satellites—launched in August 2006, December 2008 and February 2009—at the 13 degrees East longitude “slot”. Contracts to build Hotbird 13F and 13G were awarded by Eutelsat to Airbus Defence & Space in November 2018 and the satellites are based upon the 8,800-pound (4,100-kilogram) Eurostar-Neo “bus”.
Notably, the twins incorporate Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM)—3D printing—of a combined total of 500 radio frequency components, including multi-waveguide blocks and switch assembly networks. According to Airbus, this not only resulted in substantial labor savings during the satellite assembly process, but also marked the first large-scale deployment of radio frequency products using ALM.
In February of last year, Hotbird 13F’s communications module was transferred from Airbus’ Portsmouth facility in the United Kingdom to its facilities in Toulouse, France, to commence structural integration and testing. And just last month, the complete satellite was shipped from Toulouse to Cape Canaveral for launch.
Powered by all-electric propulsion, the new Hotbird twins are furnished with a correspondingly larger payload, allowing two satellites to provide the same amount of Ku-band capacity as the three which currently support the 13 degrees East orbital “slot”. The Eurostar-Neo also has enhanced resistance against signal jamming, including advanced features in terms of uplink signal protection and resilience and exceptional on-orbit redundancy capabilities.
Hotbird’s current presence at 13 degrees East affords it one of Europe’s largest broadcasting systems, delivering 1,000 television channels to over 160 million homes in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Since the Hotbird 13F/13G contract award, multiple channel providers have signed multi-year agreements to secure resources on this powerful pair of satellites.
These include Spain’s Telefonica, which signed contracts in December 2019 to distribute general interest and news channels and Travel Africa Network’s high-definition travel channels, whose own deal with Eutelsat was concluded in May 2020. More recently, in September 2020 Sky Italia renewed its Hotbird capacity and in October of last year TVN—part of the Discovery Group and Poland’s leading private broadcaster with 24 channels—signed a multi-year agreement to secure incremental resources.
Originally scheduled for launch at 11:26 p.m. EDT Friday, at the opening of a 116-minute “window”, the T-0 was repeatedly adjusted firstly to 12:26 a.m. EDT Saturday—”for additional data review”, according to SpaceX—and then to 1:22 a.m. EDT, right at the end of the window.
Tonight’s launch proceeded without incident, marking the time that SpaceX has flown four times within the first half of a calendar month. Less than nine minutes after liftoff, B1069 pirouetted to a smooth touchdown on JRTI, as the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage conducted a long, six-minute “burn” to deliver Hotbird 13F on the first leg of its onward trek to geostationary orbit.
This is SpaceX’s fourth geostationary-bound mission of 2022, following on the heels of Nilesat 301 and SES-22, both in June, and last week’s launch of the Galaxy 33/34 twins. Coming up later in October are a potential pair of Starlink launches from the Space Coast and—just perhaps—the return-to-flight of SpaceX’s triple-barreled Falcon Heavy for the first time in more than three years.
The Heavy, which previously flew three times between February 2018 and June 2019, will carry the highly classified USSF-44 payload for the U.S. Space Force on a mission tentatively scheduled for month’s end. This raises the distinct possibility that October may conclude as SpaceX’s first seven-launch month on record.