SpaceX Successfully Launches Astra 1P Comsat Toward Critical 19.2-Degree East Location

B1080 springs from SLC-40 precisely on time at 5:35 p.m. EDT Thursday, after two days of scrubbed launch attempts due to unfavorable Florida weather. Photo Credit: SpaceX

After two back-to-back days of delay caused by Florida’s unfavorable weather, SpaceX successfully launched its 62nd Falcon 9 mission of the year on Thursday, establishing 2024—even at midyear—as its second most-flown year to date. Making its ninth launch in under 13 months, the B1080 booster roared away from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 5:35 p.m. EDT, carrying the powerful Astra 1P geostationary communications satellite on behalf of Luxembourg-based SES.

Fire and fury belches from B1080’s nine Merlin 1D+ engines as she takes flight for the ninth time in 13 months. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Last night’s launch came on the back of a pair of scrubbed attempts on Tuesday and Wednesday, both of which posed iffy 50-50 weather favorability odds, tempered by a risk of violating liftoff winds, the Cumulus Cloud Rule and the Anvil Rule. With wind speeds gusting at up to 35-40 mph (56-64 km/h) and predictions of “a significant moisture increase”, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base, SpaceX teams elected to stand down both Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s launch opportunities, citing “unfavorable weather” at both the launch and landing locations, with conditions in the Atlantic Ocean also classified as “Moderate-High” for the safe recovery of B1080 on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”.

And despite flying four prior times so far in June—with two missions out of the Cape and one from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., inside the month’s opening week plus another West Coast flight late Tuesday evening—2024’s middle has been marked by a relative slowdown of launch pace for the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization, which passed its first ten-mission month in January, reached eleven and twelve by the end of March and thirteen and fourteen at the close of May. That slowdown has been driven chiefly by Florida’s unfavorable weather, which impacted not only Astra 1P but a Starlink mission aboard the B1073 booster, which was scrubbed two days in a row since 12 June before eventually succumbing to a dramatic pad abort at T-0 on the 14th.

B1073 suffered a rare pad abort at T-0 on 14 June, the first such scrub since October 2020. That and Florida’s intractable weather have conspired to slow down June’s pace of launches. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

With June’s first four Falcon 9 missions having all been dedicated to Starlink, successfully deploying a grand total of 82 of these flat-packed internet communications satellite batches into low-Earth orbit, each stack weighing-in at 35,900 pounds (16,300 kilograms), last night’s mission was the first of the month devoted to an external customer. Luxembourg-based satellite owner and operator SES has been a regular and repeat flyer with SpaceX, having launched nine large geostationary communications satellites—including the dual-stacked SES-18/SES-19 in March of 2023—and six O3b mPOWER broadband satellites lofted in three batches between December 2022 and last November.

SES also marked SpaceX’s first geostationary customer, when a Falcon 9 triumphantly lifted the heavyweight SES-8 payload aloft in December 2013. And it also secured the first seat aboard a “reflown” Falcon 9 booster when a member of the rocket fleet became the first to complete a second launch in March 2017

Unique trail to the Falcon 9 SES8 Launch Credit: John
Unusual exhaust plume trail from the Falcon 9 during the SES-8 launch in December 2013. Photo Credit: John Studwell

Aboard last night’s mission was SES’ 11,000-pound (5,000-kilogram) Astra 1P, one of a pair of next-generation communications satellites—alongside the still-to-be-launched Astra 1Q—for which contracts were awarded to Thales Alenia Space in November 2021. With Astra 1Q itself targeted to launch in the next year or two, SES expects both satellites to be in position to “seamlessly replace” its current aging Astra fleet at the critical 19.2 degrees East longitude position by 2028. 

Weighing 11,000 pounds (5,000 kilograms), Astra 1P is equipped with 80 Ku-band transponders to facilitate the broadcasting of up to 500 High Definition Television (HDTV) channels across Germany, Spain and France for an estimated 119 million households. It is touted to be the most powerful wide-beam satellite ever emplaced at 19.2 degrees East and will deliver “superior reliability and unparalleled image quality for broadcasters and content owners in SES’ largest TV markets” over a 15-year lifetime. 

Thales Alenia Space engineers work on the integration of Astra 1P, which SES describes as the most powerful satellite yet to reach its critical 19.2 degrees East longitude location. Photo Credit: SES

It was noted at the time of the November 2021 contract award that 19.2 degrees East serves over 43 percent of all European homes and its demand for high-definition content grew by almost 30 percent in the five years preceding the contract award. In Germany, 19.2 degrees East serves public and private broadcasting, in France it reaches 63 percent of all satellite, cable and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) households and across Spain it partners with Telefónica to deliver the Movistar+ pay-TV platform and carried numerous free-to-air international television channels.

But weather seemed likely to stand in the way of Astra 1P’s launch, following two fruitless efforts to get the mission airborne earlier this week. The predicted arrival of the easterly wave on Thursday was expected to bring “a significant moisture increase”, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base, with risks of violating the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Anvil Rule.

The Falcon 9 payload fairing halves are closed around the Astra 1P satellite during pre-launch processing. Photo Credit: SES

However, Thursday really did prove to be third time lucky for the mission. “All systems are looking good for today’s launch,” SpaceX tweeted as fueling of the Falcon 9 began at T-38 minutes. “Propellant load is underway and weather is currently favorable.”

Flying the Astra 1P mission was B1080, a booster which entered service in May of last year and first launched Dragon Freedom and her Ax-2 crew of Commander Peggy Whitson, Pilot John Shoffner and Mission Specialists Ali Al-Qarni and Rayyanah Barnawi on the first leg of their nine-day science, technology and educational outreach expedition to the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, she has lofted four Starlink batches, plus Europe’s Euclid deep-space observatory, the Ax-3 crew of Commander Mike Lopez-Alegria, Pilot Walter Villadei and Mission Specialists Marcus Wandt and Alper Gezeravcı—the latter of whom became the first national space traveler of Türkiye—last January and also the CRS-30 Cargo Dragon mission to the ISS in March

B1080 launches on her maiden voyage in May 2023 for Ax-2. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Liftoff occurred at 5:35 p.m. EDT, right on the opening of Thursday’s two-hour-and-49-minute window. Eight and a half minutes later, B1080 pirouetted to a pinpoint touchdown on JRTI’s expansive deck, wrapping up the 250th drone ship landing since April 2016.

Astra 1P was successfully deployed at 34 minutes and 48 seconds into the flight. The giant satellite will now spend several months utilizing its on-board electric propulsion capabilities to reach geostationary altitude and complete testing and checkout, with a 15-year minimum operational lifetime ahead that will see it functional until at least 2040.

B1080 descends to a solid-ground touchdown on the Cape’s Landing Zone (LZ)-1 after her CRS-30 launch in March. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

“We are excited that Astra 1P will be joining our fleet of geostationary satellites, marking the next generation of satellites to operate at one of our most important orbital positions responsible for delivering content to hundreds of millions of viewers in Europe,” said Abdul al-Saleh, CEO of SES. “Ever since the launch of Astra 1A in 1988, our satellites have played a pivotal role in reliably delivering high-quality content to viewers.”

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