A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral for the second time in just over one month today, demonstrating the shortest pad turnaround for the spaceport in over a decade. Making its third flight in the upgraded v1.1 configuration, the rocket successfully placed a communication satellite into geostationary transfer orbit for Thaicom Plc, an Asian broadcast provider from Thailand.
“Today’s successful launch of the THAICOM 6 satellite marks the eighth successful flight in a row for Falcon 9,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX. “SpaceX greatly appreciates THAICOM’s support throughout this campaign and we look forward to a busy launch schedule in 2014.”
With a brisk chill blowing across the cape, the 224-foot tall rocket thundered off the launch pad right on time at 5:06 p.m. EST and quickly gathered altitude before disappearing into cloudy skies, leaving the booming roar of the Falcon’s 9 Merlin 1D engines cascading over the landscape.
The ascent to orbit appeared perfect with onboard video showing the rocket’s entire climb to space. The first stage engines shut down approximately three minutes after launch and the rocket’s upper stage separated from the spent booster. At T+184 seconds, the special high-altitude version Merlin 1D engine ignited to continue Thaicom’s journey to orbit.
After a 5 minute, 35 second burn, the second stage shut down to place THAICOM 6 into a temporary parking orbit high above the Atlantic Ocean and shut down to begin a coast phase that carried the rocket and spacecraft through part of one orbit. Eighteen minutes later, the engine restarted for a one-minute burn to propel the satellite to a geostationary transfer orbit with an apogee of 55,000 miles.
THAICOM 6 separated from the Falcon 9 upper stage approximately 31 minutes after launch.
“Falcon 9 has successfully deployed Thaicom 6 into its target orbit,” SpaceX confirmed via the company’s Twitter account.
The Falcon 9 launch vehicle flew in the v1.1 configuration with upgraded Merlin 1D engines, stretched fuel tanks, and a 5-mteter diameter payload fairing. The THAICOM 6 mission was the second launch of the Falcon 9 v.1.1 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The satellite’s manufacturer, Orbital Sciences Corporation, said shortly after launch that THAICOM 6 is healthy and beginning its on-orbit checkout phase.
“Early in the initial check-out and testing process, the THAICOM 6 satellite is performing very well,” said Mr. Christopher Richmond, Orbital’s Senior Vice President of communications satellites. “This is the first GEOStar communications satellite we have built for THAICOM and we are proud to be a part of their team, helping to address an increase in demand for telecommunications services across Southeast Asia and Africa.”
It will use its own thrusters to change its orbit by lowering the apogee and raising the perigee into a circular orbit 22,300 miles high over the Equator. The destination orbit is known as a geosynchronous one, with the orbital period matching the rotation of Earth.
Over the next several weeks, Orbital’s satellite engineering and operations team will work with their THAICOM counterparts to conduct orbit-raising maneuvers and in-orbit testing to verify all the spacecraft systems are functioning properly before it is officially turned over to THAICOM for full operational control and commencement of commercial service.
Eventually, THAICOM 6 is destined for a geosynchronous orbit above the Equator at 78.5 degrees East Longitude.
Launch of the $160 million THAICOM 6 comes about a year later than Thaicom, Plc announced when the company signed a launch contract with SpaceX. In order to provide coverage to meet regulatory deadlines for televisions stations to broadcast in digital, Thaicom purchased an existing satellite already in orbit to meet the gap.
The satellite carries a hybrid Ku- and C-band payload that operates with approximately 3.5 kilowatts of payload power. The Ku-band payload is comprised of eight active transponders (9×36-MHz Transponder Equivalent) providing services to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. The C-band payload features 12 active C-band transponders providing services via a regional beam to Southeast Asia and six active C-band transponders (12×36-MHz Transponder Equivalent) providing services to Africa. THAICOM 6 will be located in orbit at 78.5 degrees East Longitude.
“I am immensely proud of the work of the wing and our mission partners,” said Col. Robert Pavelko, vice commander, 45th Space Wing, who also served as the Launch Decision Authority.
“This is a tremendous way to open 2014, and we look forward to an exciting launch manifest in the year ahead,” he said.
SpaceX did not attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage, as it had been considering as part of long-terms plans to make the first stage reusable. During the upgraded Falcon 9’s inaugural mission from Vandenberg, AFB last September, the stage re-lit its engines and performed a controlled descent to the ocean. However, aerodynamic forces in the lower atmosphere caused the rocket to spin about its length, forcing propellant away from the feed lines and causing the engines to shut down early. The stage crashed into the ocean and was not recovered.
This launch also serves as the potential third of three qualification flights needed to certify the Falcon 9 to fly missions under the Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Once Falcon 9 is certified, SpaceX will be eligible to compete to launch national security satellites for the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense. Data from the first two flights is still being analyzed, so it is still premature to say definitively that the launch vehicle has completed the three necessary flights, but that determination is anticipated over the next few months.
Article by Matthew Travis