SpaceX Launches Inmarsat-6 F2, Other GTO-Bound Missions Wait in Wings

The powerful Inmarsat-6 F2 communications satellite disappears into the inky blackness following deployment, 32 minutes into Friday night’s mission. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has successfully launched its second commercial mission of 2023 into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), following Friday’s 10:59 p.m. EST rise of a three-times-used Falcon 9 booster with the heavyweight Inmarsat-6 F2. The 10,000-pound (5,500-kilogram) “hybrid” satellite—equipped with a sophisticated Ka-band and advanced L-band communications payload—was deployed about 32 minutes into tonight’s mission, with the veteran B1077 core stage returning to a smooth landing on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), situated offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

Video Credit: SpaceX

With 89 minutes available to launch, from 10:59 p.m. EST Friday through 12:28 a.m. EST Saturday—and the same “window” timings for the following evening—conditions for SpaceX’s fifth flight of February and 12th mission of the year looked good, notching up from an expected 65-percent favorability earlier this week to 75 percent, according to the L-1 update issued by the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base. Weather was then set to improve to 85-percent favorable for a backup try on Saturday night.

The Inmarsat-6 F2 communications satellite launches from Pad 40 of CCSFS Picture credit / Jeff Seibert

Following the anticipated arrival of a cold front in Florida late Friday evening, the 45th anticipated “isolated rain showers…along with a slight chance for some storms” during the first launch attempt. “Most clouds will be low-level,” it was added, “which bodes well for launch weather constraints.”

Inmarsat-6 F2 artwork on the Falcon 9 payload fairing. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

With pressure building behind the front, a drier weather picture faced SpaceX for the backup opportunity on Saturday night into Sunday morning, with the Cumulus Cloud Rule identified as the principal violating factor. Oceanic conditions for recovery of the B1077 core stage on the ASDS, “Just Read the Instructions”—previously characterized as Moderate to High Risk earlier this week—also stabilized as “Low” for both the prime and backup launch attempts on Friday and Saturday nights.

Pad camera views of the Inmarsat-6 F2 launch from Pad 40 of CCAFS. Video credit/Jeff Seibert AmericaSpace

JRTI departed Port Canaveral last Monday, bound for a recovery position some 470 miles (750 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Tonight’s mission marked the drone ship’s third Falcon 9 “catch” of 2021, following on the heels of a pair of missions launched late last month and more recently just two weeks ago.

B1077 roars aloft on her third mission, having previously lofted Dragon Endurance and Crew-5 last fall and GPS III-06 in mid-January. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Inmarsat-6 F2 is the second member of a sixth-generation fleet of global mobile communications satellites operated by London, England-headquartered Inmarsat. Founded in 1979 as the International Maritime Satellite Organization, it initially sought to establish communications networks for the maritime community, although this remit expanded in the 1980s to include improvements to aeronautical communications for public safety.

Over the years, Inmarsat—whose “combination” merger with Carlsbad, Calif.-based ViaSat, Inc., received formal UK Government approval last September—leveraged its technologies to encompass disaster relief, aid distribution and communications support in the aftermath of several major natural calamities, including the November 2013 onslaught of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

B1077 sits poised on SLC-40 prior to Friday night’s launch. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Built by Airbus Defence & Space, on the bones of its Eurostar-3000 “bus”, Inmarsat-6 F2 is designed for a minimum 15-year lifetime and will exclusively utilize on-board electric propulsion to lift itself to its operational perch in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), some 22,300 miles (35,700 kilometers) above Earth. When fully unfurled, the satellite’s wingspan extends to 154 feet (47 meters)—roughly equivalent to that of a Boeing 767—and the satellite boasts a total payload power of 21 kilowatts

Contracts to fabricate a pair of Inmarsat-6 birds were awarded in December 2015, reportedly worth around $600 million, with an expectation that the first of the fleet—Inmarsat-6 F1—would be delivered by Airbus “by 2020”. Ultimately, delays and the ravages of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic meant that Inmarsat-6 F1 did not arrive at Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center for launch until the late fall of 2021 and was successfully launched into orbit via a two-stage H-IIA booster on 22 December.

Video Credit: Inmarsat

Like its predecessor, Inmarsat-6 F2 is equipped with a 30-foot-aperture (9-meter) L-band antenna, with an area of 1,000 square feet (100 square meters), as well as nine multi-beam Ka-band antennas. Touted by Inmarsat as the world’s most advanced communications satellites, the L-band payload will furnish land, sea and air narrow-band communications, supporting users from business aviation to yachting and from military combat operations to emergency, disaster and water management, whilst the Ka-band Global Xpress payload is expected to facilitate worldwide high-speed mobile broadband.

According to Airbus, the reduced mass achieved by using all-electric propulsion—powered by an on-board supply of 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of xenon—has directly enabled this “hybrid” L-band/Ka-band mission. An exceptionally large next-generation digital processor provides full routing flexibility over up to 8,000 channels and dynamic power allocation to more than 200 L-band spot-beams and Ka-band spot-beams that are steerable over the full Earth-disk.

The Inmarsat-6 F2 geostationary communications satellite, characterized by its large L-band antenna, will support a 15-year minimum operational lifetime. Image Credit: Inmarsat

Inmarsat-6 F2 progressed smoothly into its Thermal Vacuum Chamber (TVC) campaign at Airbus’ facility in Toulouse, France, last April, which saw it subjected to temperature extremes from -173 degrees Celsius (-280 degrees Fahrenheit) to 120 degrees Celsius (250 degrees Fahrenheit), as well as long-duration temperature “plateaus” as long as 30 days to simulate the harsh conditions of space. Last month, the satellite was shipped from Toulouse to Cape Canaveral, via Lajes Field in the Azores, St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Washington, D.C., aboard Airbus’ Beluga heavy airlifter.

SpaceX came aboard last February as launch services provider for Inmarsat-6 F2, making this the Hawthorne, Calif.-based organization’s second mission in support of Inmarsat after the May 2017 launch of Inmarsat-5 F4. Tonight’s mission marked the 47th commercial GTO-bound communications satellite to have been lofted by a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy across 43 launches since December 2013.

Inmarsat-6 F2 is readied for Thermal Vacuum Chamber (TVC) testing. Photo Credit: Airbus Defence & Space/Inmarsat

The launch of Inmarsat-6 F2 occurred on time at 10:59 p.m. EST Friday, only nine hours after another Starlink-laden Falcon 9 had roared uphill from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. B1077 powered into the darkened Florida sky, the glare of her nine Merlin 1D+ engines transforming night into day for a few fleeting seconds.

The veteran core separated from the stack after 2.5 minutes, following which the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage executed a customary six-minute “burn” to inject Inmarsat-6 F2 into its requisite orbital position for deployment. The satellite was released at 32 minutes into last night’s mission, with an expectation that it will now employ its on-board all-electric propulsion assets to reach Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO).

A Falcon Heavy launches Saudi Arabia’s Arabsat-6A in April 2019. Video Credit: AmericaSpace

Over the past decade, SpaceX’s commercial GTO clients included Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Indonesia, Qatar, Israel, Singapore, Turkey and Egypt. Falcon 9s also ferried the first nationally-owned commercial geostationary communications satellites uphill for Turkmenistan, Bulgaria and Bangladesh.

SpaceX’s list of major customers and repeat flyers are led by Luxembourg-headquartered SES, which to date has flown seven of its satellites on SpaceX boosters, followed by Intelsat and Eutelsat, with five apiece. One other GTO payload, Israel’s AMOS-6 communications satellite, was lost in a pre-launch explosion on the pad in September 2016.  

Synchronized touchdowns of the twin side-boosters on Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zones (LZ)-1 and 2 following the Falcon Heavy’s launch of Arabsat-6A in April 2019. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

Looking ahead into 2023, SpaceX has multiple GTO-bound missions on its books for clients ranging from SES to EchoStar Corp. and Intelsat to ViaSat, Inc. As early as next month, a Falcon 9 may lift the SES-18 and SES-19 dual-stacked communications satellites, both built by Northrop Grumman Corp., to leverage the capabilities of its GeoStar-3 “bus” and are each equipped with ten C-band transponders.

These two satellites form part of a group of four SES birds—of which the first pair, SES-20 and SES-21, rode a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V to orbit early last fall—to spearhead an ongoing campaign to accelerate SES’ C-band clearing plan and meet a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) objective to free up spectrum for 5G terrestrial wireless services. In June 2020, SpaceX was selected as the launch provider for SES-18 and SES-19, with an expectation that these new satellites will help to facilitate the broadcast delivery of digital television to nearly 120 million homes.

Ball Aerospace’s TEMPO will provide first-of-its-kind hourly east-west observations of the American continents, in support of air-quality and pollution monitoring. Photo Credit: Ball Aerospace

Later this year, the Intelsat 40e High Throughput Satellite (HTS) will be launched, with NASA’s Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) co-manifested on the mission as an integrated “hosted” payload. Both spacecraft have been built by Maxar Technologies, which won the TEMPO contract from NASA in July 2019 and the Intelsat 40e contract from Intelsat in February 2020.

Based upon Maxar’s 1300-class bus—capable of supporting up to 70 transponders and a payload power of 5-12 kilowatts continuously throughout a satellite’s operational lifetime—Intelsat 40e will provide coast-to-coast coverage across North and Central America and its transponder suite covers the C-band, Ku-band and Ka-band

TEMPO is lowered aboard Intelsat 40e during final integration activities. Photo Credit: Maxar

TEMPO comprises an ultraviolet/visible spectrometer to observe pollutants by measuring sunlight reflected and scattered from Earth’s surface and atmosphere. It will complete first-of-its-kind hourly, east-west scans of the American continents, from Mexico to northern Canada and from the Atlantic to Pacific seaboards, and its data will aid air-quality forecasting and timely public warnings of pollution incidents. TEMPO can also be configured to “dwell” on regions of interest, such as major fires or volcanic eruptions.

TEMPO’s primary instrument, built by Ball Aerospace at its Broomfield, Colo., facility, was delivered in May 2021 to Maxar’s site in Palo Alto, Calif., and in November of that year was integrated aboard Intelsat 40e. Launch was originally targeted for October 2022, but has since slipped into 2023.

Galaxy 37 will play an integral role in Intelsat’s C-band clearing strategy, supporting Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to free up spectrum for 5G wireless services. Image Credit: Maxar

“By hosting government payloads on our commercial satellites, Maxar can help government agencies access space without the cost of building a dedicated spacecraft,” Maxar reported in June 2021. “TEMPO…is a demanding payload on its host satellite but Maxar’s 1300-class spacecraft can support optical instruments with fine pointing, low-jitter and high-fidelity sensor data as either a hosted sensor or a dedicated mission.”

Another Maxar-built 1300-class payload, Intelsat’s Galaxy 37 C-band communications satellite, is also expected to head uphill later in 2023, likely in the year’s second quarter. Contracts to build this satellite were awarded to Maxar in September 2020 and Galaxy 37 is expected to play an integral role in Intelsat’s C-band clearing strategy.

Artist’s conceptualization of the Jupiter-3/EchoStar-24 communications satellite as it may appear in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). Image Credit: Maxar

Originally earmarked for an Ariane 5 launch, Galaxy 37 was subsequently remanifested aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9. When it enters service at 127 degrees West longitude, it will replace the Galaxy 13 satellite, which has been in orbit since October 2003 and is approaching the end of its operational lifetime.

Two other large commercial communications satellites are set to launch aboard SpaceX’s triple-barreled Falcon Heavy, probably in 2023’s second quarter. EchoStar’s Jupiter-3 Ultra-High-Density Satellite (UHDS), built by Maxar and set to be redesignated EchoStar-24 when in orbit, will showcase miniaturized electronics, solid-state amplifiers and a high-efficiency antenna architecture for “more concentrated capacity over high-use areas”.

Two large commercial geostationary communications satellites will fly atop a pair of Falcon Heavy missions in 2023. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

Thought to weigh in the region of 20,000 pounds (9,200 kilograms), Jupiter-3 is a powerful Ka-band satellite. Its high-efficiency antennas will enable data-throughput rates as high as 500 gigabits every second.

And another Falcon Heavy, possibly set to fly as soon as April, will carry the first of three ViaSat-3 ultra-high-capacity broadband satellites, built by Boeing. Weighing nearly 13,000 pounds (6,000 kilograms), it will be directly inserted into near-Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) for a 15-year operational lifetime.

The ViaSat-3 Americas payload undergoes deployment tests of its solar array wings. Photo Credit: Alex Aristei/Scientific Imaging

Each member of the ViaSat-3 Ka-band series of satellites will furnish more than one terabit per second—equivalent to 1,000 gigabits per second—of network capacity. This will deliver a global broadband network with sufficient bandwidth to deliver affordable, ultra-high-speed, high-quality internet and video streaming services.

The first ViaSat-3, flying aboard the Falcon Heavy, will provide coverage of the Americas, with two follow-on satellites set to launch via ULA’s Atlas V and Arianespace’s Ariane 6 to focus on Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and Asia and the Pacific (APAC). ViaSat contracted the ViaSat-3 Americas launch to SpaceX back in October 2018, with an expectation that it would fly in 2020-2022, although delays arose following the COVID-19 pandemic, together with contractor and supply-chain issues.

The ViaSat-3 Americas payload is prepared for environmental and acoustic testing. Photo Credit: Denise Daclan/Scientific Imaging

In June 2021, ViaSat announced that it had completed payload integration and performance testing at its Tempe, Ariz., factory and was ready to ship it to Boeing’s El Segundo, Calif., facility for integration into the satellite bus. Last September, ViaSat-3 Americas was fully integrated and by mid-October had completed its mechanical interface tests, ahead of its Final Integrated Satellite Test (FIST) late last November.

According to ViaSat, the Falcon Heavy was selected for the ViaSat-3 Americas launch on account of its ability to emplace the satellite extremely close to geostationary orbit. This will enable it to commence In-Orbit Testing (IOT) quickly, rather than spending weeks or months maneuvering to its optimum position.

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