SES-8 success plots trajectory for future SpaceX possibilities

by Chris Bergin

With the SES-8 satellite happily undergoing initial preparations for its life in geostationary orbit, SpaceX is already preparing for the next mission – and many other wide-ranging missions into the future. While SES-8’s ride uphill mirrored the successes already achieved by other launch services companies, this mission propelled SpaceX’s stature to new heights within the industry.

SES-8 Success:

It’s no secret that SpaceX have had to earn the respect of the launch services industry the hard way, from winning over the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) on their commercial crew aspirations, through to battling against more established companies who naturally see SpaceX’s growth as a threat to their future contracts.

Z12The best way SpaceX can respond to the competition is to successfully complete its manifest of missions via its growing capability.

Marking the second success of their newly upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle, SpaceX ticked off yet more milestones from their “to do” list, with the beefed up rocket debuting from the company’s SLC-40 launch site in Florida, prior to completing SpaceX’s first geostationary transfer orbit mission via a successful restart of their Second Stage.

The launch came at the third attempt, following two scrubs – the latter requiring hands on work to clean the gas generators on the Merlin 1D engines, with the related hardware on Engine 9 (Center Engine) being replaced ahead of the next countdown.

Z3With an additional day added for a full review of the Falcon 9’s health, SpaceX made their third attempt on December 3, this time enjoying a trouble-free count, allowing for the rocket to lift off from its SLC-40 launch pad at the opening of the launch window.

Per L2 information, the quick look review portrayed a completely nominal first stage ascent, with no major items of interest.

However, tasked with lofting the Orbital-built SES-8 satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit, the Falcon 9’s liftoff was only part one of the mission milestones, with another first required during second stage flight.

Z9With the Second Stage, powered by the Merlin VacD, completing its first burn, a coast phase of 18 minutes was required. With SpaceX’s webcast ending, followers turned to refreshing Elon Musk’s Twitter account for news of a successful second burn, as required to send SES-8 into its orbit for separation.

The milestone was slightly more anticipated than would normally be expected, following the report card on the debut flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 with the CASSIOPE satellite.

Post mission, it was reported the second burn of the Upper Stage – conducted for research into future reusability aspirations, as opposed to being a requirement for the satellite’s successful launch – resulted in the Merlin VacD failing to restart.

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With the root cause relating to frozen lines in the Second Stage’s plumbing, SpaceX mitigated the issue via the installation of insulation on the propulsion system, protecting the Second Stage from the cold vacuum of space while it was busy lofting SES-8.

Z10This proved to be successful, as news that the second burn was conducted came through.

This was followed by the successful separation of the SES-8 satellite, ahead of its trip to its final orbital location.

“The successful insertion of the SES-8 satellite confirms the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle delivers to the industry’s highest performance standards,” noted Mr, Musk.

“As always, SpaceX remains committed to delivering the safest, most reliable launch vehicles on the market today. We appreciate SES’s early confidence in SpaceX and look forward to launching additional SES satellites in the years to come.”

Z5The SES-8 spacecraft is a hybrid Ku- and Ka-band spacecraft – the sixth GEOSTAR satellite ordered by SES WORLD SKIES.

The satellite is based on Orbital’s Enhanced GEOSTAR 2.4 bus, and carries 24 active Ku-band transponders of 36 or 54 Mhz capacity, switchable among 33 channels and two beams. Certain channels in each beam are cross-strapped to multiple frequency bands, enabling flexibility for new services. In the addition, the spacecraft features a Ka-band payload.

The spacecraft can generate approximately five kilowatts of payload power and will feature two 2.5 x 2.7 meter super elliptical deployable reflectors and a 1.45 meter fixed, nadir antenna.

With the satellite communicating that it is in a healthy condition, Orbital and SES engineers are conducting early preparations for its active life in Geostationary Orbit.

“I confirm that the satellite was properly deployed in the targeted orbit and that it is responding to our commands,” added SES media relations officer Yves Feltes to “As of now, the mission has been a complete success.

“We still have to proceed to the deployment of the antennas and of the panels but that is not SpaceX’s job but that of SES in collaboration with their supplier Orbital.”

That process has been in work over the days following launch, with orbit raising work to be carried out over the coming near-term period.

Z4Meanwhile, back at SLC-40, SpaceX are already preparing for the next launch, with the third Falcon 9 v1.1 set to loft another Orbital-built satellite, namely Thaicom-6.

Per L2, both the satellite and the First and Second stages have arrived at Cape Canaveral.

While the launch date has not yet been made official, the NET (No Earlier Than) date in the third week of December is likely to slip, not least because the Eastern Range will be under maintenance for a week, beginning December 20, per L2.

The Range also shows no launches are booked to take place throughout the remainder of December.

Z3132A launch early in January would still work out well for SpaceX, allowing them to hold on to the February 22 launch target for yet another launch, this time resulting in the Dragon spacecraft taking its first ride on the Falcon 9 v1.1 during its Commercial Ressuply Services -3 (CRS-3/SpX-3) mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Such a schedule would result in a busy start to 2014 for SpaceX, in a year that should also see the debut of their Falcon Heavy launch vehicle and further progress on the company’s plans to create a fully reusable launch system.

Z6Per SpaceX’s streamlined processes, almost all of their milestones tie into each other, with the Falcon Heavy powered by three F9 v1.1 core stages, while the F9 v1.1’s other name is the F9-R, thanks to its design allowing for an incremental approach to testing the technologies required for allowing the stages to return to Earth for re-use.

While the Grasshopper system was employed as a key technology test bed during early first stage recovery testing at SpaceX’s McGregor facility, a new phase of testing is scheduled to take place in New Mexico, utilizing the Grasshopper 2 (GH2) system.

The CASSIOPE mission also involved the first “boost back” test of the first stage, while sources note there was also a boost back test during the SES-8 mission, or at least the restart of the first stage post staging.

Z3A1It is also understood that the CRS-3 mission may involve the first Falcon 9 v1.1 to sport the landing legs that will be required once the stage is ready for a return to land. The birth of the core stages at their Californian nursery showed preparations for such a possibility.

Ultimately, as portrayed in SpaceX videos, the Falcon 9 First Stage, Second Stage and Dragon spacecraft will all eventually sport the capability to return to land for re-use, during crewed Dragon missions.

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s order book continues to grow, with nearly 50 launches on their current manifest, of which over 60 percent are for commercial customers.

They are also working towards becoming a main launch services provider for US Air Force payloads under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

Z8This aim has been a long term aspiration for SpaceX, fighting against a market they claim has been under a stranglehold via contract awards for payloads to fly mainly on Atlas and Delta launch vehicles.

However, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the USAF, the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) and NASA opened up the possibility for the likes of SpaceX to compete for the launch contracts.

Late last year saw SpaceX awarded with two EELV-class missions to ride on their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets in 2014 and 2015 respectively. The launches, which fall under Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3), will mark SpaceX’s debut for this class of mission.

Notably, the SES-8 success also marked the second of three certification flights required to certify the Falcon 9 to fly missions under the EELV program. Once Falcon 9 is classed as certified, SpaceX will be eligible to compete for all National Security Space (NSS) missions.

And then there’s Mars. It is expected that additional news on SpaceX’s plans for the Red Planet will be forthcoming next year.

(Images: SpaceX, NASA, Orbital and L2).

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