Tomorrow, SpaceX is launching a communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit. After the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage separates, SpaceX will attempt to land it on an autonomous drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. But be on the lookout for a RUD, or "Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly." The company's press kit warns "a successful landing is not expected."
SES-9 is headed to geosynchronous orbit, where its final altitude will be about 36,000 kilometers. That's a lot higher than the 620-kilometer-high orbit SpaceX dropped 11 ORBCOMM satellites into back in December. To get there, the Falcon 9's first stage will fire for an extra 16 seconds, pushing the second stage and payload to a much higher speed and altitude before separation.
That will make it harder to recover the spent booster rocket. A landing back at Cape Canaveral is out of the question, so SpaceX is deploying its "Of Course I Still Love You" drone ship. OCISLY, named after a futuristic, sentient ship from sci-fi author Iain M. Banks' Culture series, was the ship left waiting for a rocket that never came last year, when SpaceX's CRS-7 mission ended in disaster.
The company's entire launch manifest, including SES-9, suffered delays as a result. Tomorrow's mission was initially scheduled for late last year, but delayed again; as a result, SpaceX agreed to give the satellite an extra boost that will allow it to get to its final orbit a little sooner than expected. The satellite will first use a standard chemical thruster to ease into a 24-hour orbital period. After that, it will use electric propulsion to reach its final position over Asia.