Jason DavisDec 03, 2013

SpaceX’s Upgraded Falcon Delivers Satellite to Geostationary Orbit

It took three launch windows, a handful of aborts, one new gas generator and one #spacegiving—but SpaceX did it. On Tuesday evening, the company’s upgraded Falcon 9 launched into the Florida twilight, carrying a communications satellite to geostationary transfer orbit.

The payload was BBI—Boring But Important1. It was a communications satellite called SES-8 that will provide Internet, phone and television services to South Asia and Indochina. SES-8 was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation and is one of 55 geostationary satellites owned by Luxembourg-based SES. 

Earth from Falcon 9 upper stage
Earth from Falcon 9 upper stage On Dec. 3, 2013, SpaceX's Falcon 9 version 1.1 placed a communications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. This view was taken from a camera mounted to the upper stage from an altitude of 13,000 kilometers.Image: SpaceX

So what made this mission such a big deal?

SES-8 is the first payload SpaceX has sent to geostationary transfer orbit. GTO is the last stop for payloads headed to geostationary orbit, where satellites cruise around the world at the same speed the Earth rotates, keeping them at a constant longitude. Geostationary orbits are more than 35,000 kilometers high—much higher than your run-of-the-mill 400-kilometer low-Earth orbit, where the International Space Station hangs out.

Nailing a GTO is a job typically reserved for rockets like the Russian Proton or European Ariane 5. SES-8 gives SpaceX and its customers some confidence in the upgraded Falcon 9, and its ability to lift heavy payloads to difficult orbits. The F9 version 1.1 is now two for two, having successfully debuted in September at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The new, more powerful Falcon has a decidedly cool Octoweb design2. Eight Merlin engines circle the base of the rocket, with a ninth in the center. 

It was the first time the Falcon 9’s second stage Merlin 1D engine re-lit during flight. During September’s test mission from Vandenberg, SpaceX gave the re-light a shot after Falcon released its payload. It didn’t work.

“The igniter fluid lines froze due to liquid oxygen bleed impingement,” said CEO Elon Musk, speaking with reporters prior to the launch of SES-8. “We’ve added a lot of insulation to those lines, and we’ve made sure that the cold oxygen doesn’t impinge on those lines. We believe that will address the restart issue.”

He was right. The engine re-lit without a problem, and SES-8 was eased into transfer orbit without a hitch.

Liftoff of SES-8
Liftoff of SES-8 SpaceX's Falcon 9 lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 carrying communications satellite SES-8.Image: SpaceX

Musk hosted his press conference from a cell phone in Disney World, where he was spending the day with his children prior to the first launch attempt on Nov. 25. The trip, he said, has become a preflight ritual for East Coast Falcon launches.

With Tuesday’s successful flight, Musk's ritual remains reliable—sort of. The Nov. 25 attempt was scrubbed due to pressure fluctuations in the first stage’s liquid oxygen tank. The second try came on Nov. 28, Thanksgiving Day, and progressed all the way to engine ignition. The liftoff, however, was aborted when the Falcon's engines did not ramp up thrust properly, triggering an automatic abort.

The Falcon 9 underwent a thorough checkup. The rocket’s gas generators—which power the vehicle's turbopumps—were cleaned, and the gas generator on engine nine was swapped completely. 

It’s just another typical week for the rocket scientist-entrepreneur, who recently graced a couple magazine covers. Musk is on the November 2013 cover of The Atlantic, holding a sextant, next to the caption, “Is he the greatest living inventor?” He's also on the December 2013 cover of Fortune for being selected businessperson of the year. For Musk, the flight of SES-8 is also welcome distraction from a National Highway Safety Administration investigation into three Tesla battery fires.3

So far, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation are the only NewSpace organizations acting as bona-fide service providers. Virgin Galactic isn’t far behind. Test flights of SpaceShip Two are getting more and more impressive, and it seems plausible we could see passengers flying sometime next year.

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell outlined her company's rocket construction schedule. 

“We’re continuing to invest heavily in production capability,” she said. “Right now we’re at about a vehicle per month production rate. We’ll be at 18 per year in the next couple of quarters, and by the end of next year, we’ll be at 24.”

SpaceX and other private spaceflight firms have been bolstered by NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which wrapped up in mid-November. The next goal? Ready private companies to send astronauts to the International Space Station.4 The current deadline is 2017—no easy feat. A report by the NASA Office of Inspector General suggests that because the program has only received 38 percent of its requested 2011 through 2013 funding—with little hope of improvement on the horizon—astronauts might not launch from U.S. soil until closer to 2020. Which, by the way, is when the ISS is currently scheduled to be trashed.5

SpaceX’s third paid cargo run to the ISS is currently scheduled for Feb. 22. It will be the fourth flight of the Falcon 9 version 1.1 (another commercial satellite is scheduled to launch before then), and the first Dragon capsule to ride the updated rocket. The cargo run will be yet another important milestone for the company. Actually, every flight by every organization seems to be an important milestone these days. Especially for funding-starved NASA, where there isn’t much room for error on any mission, manned or otherwise.

Twilight Falcon
Twilight Falcon SpaceX's first Falcon 9 bound for geostationary transfer orbit sits silhouetted in twilight prior to its Dec. 3, 2013 launch.Image: SpaceX

 1 In all fairness, I figure the folks at SES feel the satellite is anything but boring, as do the people in South Asia and Indochina that will use the services SES-8 provides.

 2 I’m trying to think of another rocket that has used this many engines in a circular pattern. The Soviet N1, perhaps? 

 3 The whole battery fire scandal may be overblown, since two drivers ran over large chunks of metal, and the third hit a concrete wall. In other Tesla news, the best way to change politicians' minds on anti-Tesla legislation appears to be giving them a ride in a Tesla. 

 4 Now that Commercial Orbital Transportation Services has come to an end, NASA is soliciting proposals for Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, the second phase of the Commercial Crew Program. The first phase was called Certification Products Contracts. In summary: COTS is over, so now we’re on CCP. The first CCP phase was CPC and the second is CCtCap. I’m not making this stuff up. 

5 It is possible that the ISS may get a lifespan extension to 2028. 

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