SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 launches Thaicom-6 at first attempt

by William Graham

Following last month’s successful launch of SES-8, SpaceX launched their second geostationary mission Monday, with a Falcon 9 v1.1 deploy Thailand’s Thaicom 6 satellite on Monday. Launch occurred at the start of the 122-minute window on the first attempt from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex-40 at 17:06 Eastern Time (22:06 UTC).


The launch of SES-8 in December marked the first time SpaceX had used the Falcon 9 rocket to deliver a payload into geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Z3The SES-8 spacecraft, which is operated by Luxembourg-based Société Européenne des Satellites (SES), was successfully deployed into its planned transfer orbit.

It has since raised itself into geostationary orbit; as of 5 January it was in a 35,783 by 35,790 kilometers (22,235 by 22,239 statute miles, 19,321 by 19,325 nautical miles) orbit inclined at 0.06 degrees, with a longitude of around 81 degrees east.

The success of the SES-8 launch demonstrated the Falcon 9’s ability to deploy a payload into geosynchronous transfer orbit – a capability necessary for the majority of commercial launch contracts since geostationary communications satellites account for a large proportion of the commercial launch market.

SpaceX has a backlog including at least nine more geostationary launches between the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles, with the aim of attracting further contracts by offering lower launch prices compared to the rest of the industry.

Monday’s mission marked the eighth flight of the Falcon 9 and the third flight of the v1.1 configuration, the thirteenth launch overall for SpaceX.

Falcon 1 Flight 2Formed in 2002 by PayPal founder Elon Musk, the company’s first launch occurred in March 2006 using the small Falcon 1 rocket, which has since been retired.

The company’s first three launches – all using Falcon 1 rockets – failed, with the fourth launch in 2008 being the first to successfully achieve orbit.

The final Falcon 1 launch occurred in July 2009, deploying RazakSat for Malaysia’s Astronautic Technology Sqn Bhd.

Although an improved version, the Falcon 1e, was offered for a time, SpaceX eventually abandoned the lower end of the launch market in favour of flying smaller spacecraft as secondary payloads on Falcon 9 launches.

The first Falcon 9 successfully orbited a demonstration payload, the Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit, in June 2010. Six months later the second Falcon 9 deployed the first prototype Dragon spacecraft on a brief test flight, lasting just a few hours and culminating in the successful recovery of the capsule.

Z3132With this test complete three Dragon spacecraft were launched to the International Space Station between 2012 and 2013: a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration mission and two operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) flights.

The Falcon 9 suffered a partial failure during the first CRS launch, the only blemish upon its flight record to date. An engine failure during first stage flight forced it to burn the second stage for longer than had been planned.

Although the Dragon reached its planned orbit and was able to fulfil its mission with complete success, an Orbcomm satellite which was also being carried by the Falcon could not be placed into a usable orbit and reentered the Earth’s atmosphere two days after liftoff.

SpaceX photo of testingFollowing the second CRS launch, the initial version of the Falcon 9, the v1.0, was retired from use with the v1.1 replacing it.

The Falcon 9 v1.1, which first flew in September 2013, incorporates a new engine layout and stretched first and second stages, increasing the rocket’s payload capacity.

The maiden flight, which lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, successfully deployed Canada’s CASSIOPE satellite and several secondary payloads, while the second launch in December carried SES-8.

Z3AA two-stage rocket, the Falcon 9 is built entirely in-house at SpaceX’s plant in Hawthorne, California, with testing taking place at a former Beal Aerospace facility in McGregor, Texas.

Following its arrival at Cape Canaveral late last year, the Falcon was integrated and underwent a successful static firing at the launch pad as part of a launch rehearsal on 28 December.

The Falcon 9 is powered by ten Merlin engines. Nine Merlin-1D engines propel the first stage, with the tenth, a Merlin Vacuum, mounted on the second stage to take over once the first stage has depleted its propellant supply. Atop the second stage, Thaicom 6 is encapsulated within the Falcon’s payload fairing.

Z5Like SES-8, Thaicom 6 was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation and is based around the GEOStar-2.3 bus. With a mass of 3,016 kilograms (6,649 lb) it carries eighteen C-band and eight Ku-band transponders.

Twelve of the C-band transponders and six of the Ku-band ones offer bandwidth of 36 megahertz, while the remaining six C-band transponders have 72 megahertz bandwidth and the two remaining Ku-band transponders have 54 megahertz.

Thaicom 6 will provide C-band communications for Southeast Asia, most of Africa and part of Arabia, with the Ku-band payload providing narrower coverage of Thailand and the surrounding countries.

The African coverage – using the six 72-megahertz transponders – will be marketed as Africom-1, as Thaicom aims to expand its business outside of Asia.

Z3To power its transponders, Thaicom 6 carries twin solar arrays each consisting of three panels of ultra-triple-junction gallium arsenide cells.

These will generate a minimum of 3,700 watts of power, while rechargeable lithium-ion batteries will be used to power the spacecraft when the Earth eclipses the Sun from its position. The satellite will also deploy two communications antennae, with a third mounted on its body.

The body-mounted antenna will be used by the C2 communications payload for Africa, while the C1 payload – the c-band transponders for Asia – will make use of a square-shaped grid antenna. The other dish is elliptical, and will be used by the ku-band payload.

Z6The Thaicom 6 spacecraft will join Thaicom 5, which was launched in 2006, at a longitude of 78.5 degrees east. This slot has been named “Hotbird” by Thaicom, although this is unrelated to Eutelsat’s 13 degree east slot which that name more commonly relates to.

Thaicom leased AsiaSat 7, an on-orbit spare satellite in China’s AsiaSat constellation, to cover the slot ahead of Monday’s launch, with the leased satellite being operated as Thaicom 6A.

Formed in September 1991, Thaicom was originally named Shinawatra Satellite, or Shin Satellite, after its founder Thaksin Shinawatra. After becoming Prime Minister of Thailand in 2001, Shinawatra was accused of a conflict of interest by continuing his business enterprises, and in early 2006 he sold his remaining shares in the company.

Later that year Shinawatra was deposed from office in a coup d’état, and put on trial in absentia for corruption. In 2008, months before his conviction, Shin Satellite was renamed Thaicom after the series of satellites it operates.

The first Thaicom satellite, Thaicom 1, was launched by an Ariane 4 rocket in December 1993. Thailand’s first satellite, it was based on the Hughes 376 bus. The following year Thaicom 2 was also launched by an Ariane 4. Both satellites operated until 2010, when they were retired and moved to graveyard orbits.

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Thaicom 3 was a Spacebus-3000A satellite launched in 1997. It began to suffer from power supply problems in 2003 and in mid-2005 Shin Satellite purchased the unlaunched Agrani 2 satellite from defunct Indian operator Agrani Communications to replace it, with Thaicom 3 being decommissioned within a year of the launch.

Agrani 2 had originally been ordered by Thaicom as a sister-satellite to Thaicom 3, but was subsequently sold off. Having been reacquired, the satellite was launched as Thaicom 5 in May 2006.

Thaicom 5 remains in service, as does the LS-1300-based Thaicom 4 satellite which was launched in 2005.

Z4At the time of its launch, Thaicom 4 – also known as iPSTAR, was the largest commercial communications satellite ever flown, and required a dedicated launch on an Ariane 5 to get it into orbit.

The satellite is currently operational at a longitude of 119.4 degrees east.

Marking a break with tradition, Thaicom 6 is the first satellite in Thaicom’s fleet not to be launched by Arianespace.

Thaicom 7 will also be launched by SpaceX later this year; however this is not a complete satellite but a leased payload aboard China’s AsiaSat 6 spacecraft.

Z8Countdown operations for the Thaicom 6 mission began around thirteen and a half hours before the start of the window, when the rocket was powered up in preparation for its mission.

The next significant milestone after power-up was the beginning of fuelling, with oxidiser loading confirmed approximately three hours and fifty minutes before the window opened. Propellant tanking began ten minutes later.

From the beginning of oxidiser loading to both propellant and oxidiser tanks being fully loaded, tanking took approximately forty five minutes.

Z9After the end of fuelling, the oxidiser tanks continued to be topped off until shortly before liftoff as the cryogenic liquid boiled off and needed to be replenished.

Thirteen minutes before launch polling was conducted by controllers to begin the terminal countdown. The terminal count picked up at T-10 minutes, with the automated launch sequence starting.

At about T-9 minutes, 40 seconds, first stage engine chill-down commenced. The rocket’s onboard computers went into their automated sequences six and a half minutes ahead of liftoff.

The Falcon 9 transferred to internal power six minutes ahead of launch, with pressurization of the first stage propellant and oxidiser tanks occurring shortly afterwards.

Z5Retraction of the strongback, the tower used to erect and support the rocket on the launch pad and provide umbilical connections, took place shortly after the T-5 minute mark is passed.

At T-3 minutes, 30 seconds the Falcon 9’s flight termination system, which commands the vehicle to self-destruct in the event that it should go off course, was enabled.

A precautionary measure to ensure the rocket cannot endanger populated areas, no launch from Cape Canaveral has required termination since August 1998, when back-to-back failures a fortnight apart required the destruction of a Titan IVA, which was making its final flight, and the maiden flight of the Delta III.

About two and a half minutes in advance of the planned T-0, the flight director verified that both the rocket and spacecraft were ready to be launched. The flight computer then aligned itself for launch. At the two minute mark the Range Operations Center gave the final clearance for launch to proceed.

Z11The Falcon 9 entered start-up mode, the second stage was pressurized, and the pad water deluge system, known as “Niagara” activated when the countdown reached the sixty-second mark. By T-45 seconds all of the fuel and oxidiser tanks were at flight pressure.

Ignition of the nine Merlin-1D engines powering the first stage occurred three seconds before liftoff. The rocket was then held down until onboard computers verified a healthy start-up.

On more than one previous launch this safeguard has resulted in an abort due to one or more engines not operating within expected parameters.

Z15After lifting off the rocket initially climbed vertically before pitching over to attain the necessary attitude for its orbit. Flying East over the Atlantic, the rocket passed through the sound barrier at around 73 seconds after launch, followed by the area of maximum dynamic pressure, max-Q, at about T+85 seconds.

Chill-down of the second stage engine began around two minutes and 43 seconds after liftoff.

First stage engine cutoff, or MECO-1, occurred two minutes and 54 seconds into the flight, with jettison of the spent stage occurring five seconds later.

Z9Around seven seconds after separation, the second stage engine ignited to continue the journey into orbit, beginning the first of two burns.

Separation of the payload fairing from around the Thaicom 6 satellite occurred approximately four minutes and three seconds after launch, with the rocket high enough that the protective shroud was no longer necessary to shield the spacecraft from the atmosphere during ascent.

The first burn of the second stage’s engine lasted five minutes and 35 seconds, injecting the second stage and payload into a parking orbit.

Following an 18-minute coast phase the engine was restarted for a second burn, lasting about a minute, to inject the payload into its geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Thaicom 6 separated from the Falcon 9 about three minutes after the completion of the second burn, thirty-one minutes and thirteen seconds after launch.

The target orbit for Thaicom 6’s separation is a supersynchronous transfer orbit with a perigee of 295 kilometres, an apogee of 90,000 kilometres (183 by 56,000 statute miles, 159 by 49,000 nautical miles) and inclination of 22.5 degrees.

The satellite is fitted with a BT-4 apogee motor, produced by Japan’s IHI Aerospace, to maneuver itself into geostationary orbit.

SLC-40Monday’s launch made use of Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The east coast home of the Falcon 9, SLC-40 was originally built in the 1960s as a Titan III launch complex. Complex 40 was part of the Integrate-Transfer-Launch Complex, which also included Launch Complex 41 to the north.

The first launch to take place from Launch Complex 40, as it was originally named, was the maiden flight of the Titan IIIC, which took place on 18 June 1965. Another test launch occurred later the same year, after which the complex was earmarked for conversion ahead of the planned Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) programme.

A MOL prototype fashioned from leftover Titan I missile stages was successfully launched from the pad in November 1966, along with an unmanned Gemini spacecraft – which had previously flown on the Gemini II mission – and a pair of Orbiting Vehicle (OV) research satellites.

No further launches occurred from LC-40 until 1970 due to conversion work for the MOL programme, which was eventually cancelled. Once returned to operational use LC-40 was used for all further Titan IIIC launches; LC-41, which had been used by the rocket in the meantime, was converted for NASA’s Titan IIIE.

The final Titan IIIC launch from LC-40 took place in March 1982, after which the pad was used by Titan III(34)D and Commercial Titan III rockets.

Between late 1990 and mid 1992 the complex was adapted to serve the Titan IV – already launching from SLC-41 – with the last Commercial Titan III launch in September 1992 carrying NASA’s ill-fated Mars Observer satellite.

The first Titan IV launch from LC-40 occurred in February 1994. In 1998 the pad, which had been renamed Space Launch Complex 40, was used to launch the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.

Space Launch Complex 41 was closed in 1999 to allow conversion for it to support the Atlas V rocket, leaving SLC-40 the only remaining Titan launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Titan IV launches continued until April 2005, when a Titan IVB deployed the fifth Onyx radar imaging satellite, USA-182.

In total, 26 Titan IIIC, eight Titan III(34)D, four Commercial Titan III, five Titan IVA and eleven Titan IVB rockets used SLC-40, with a total of 54 launches.

Z18Demolition of the Titan launch pad began in 2007 after SpaceX leased the pad for the Falcon 9. The mobile service tower was toppled by a controlled explosion in April 2008 and by early 2009 the first Falcon 9 had been assembled at the pad for facility tests.

Monday’s launch was the seventh Falcon 9 launch from the pad – which has been used for all of the rocket’s flights except for the CASSIOPE launch last year – and the sixty-first from the complex altogether.

The launch of Thaicom 6 was the first orbital launch of 2014 for the United States. In 2013 America conducted nineteen launches, all of which were successful.

Dragon at the ISS, via huge unreleased L2 photo collectionSpaceX was responsible for three of those launches, having flown a Dragon mission to the International Space Station using the last Falcon 9 v1.0 in April, a low Earth orbit mission with Canada’s CASSIOPE satellite from Vandenberg on the first Falcon 9 v1.1 in September, and the first geosynchronous transfer launch in December using another v1.1 to deploy SES-8.

The next scheduled launch for SpaceX is slated for 22 February, with a Falcon 9 v1.1 deploying the next Dragon spacecraft on a Commercial Resupply Services mission to the ISS.

SpaceX aims to follow this with a mission to orbit eight Orbcomm satellites in March and a pair of GTO launches for AsiaSat of China in April and May, before another Dragon mission in early June. Further Dragon launches are planned for September and December.

SpaceX is also believed to be planning a launch with nine Orbcomm satellites before the end of the year, and a mission to deploy an undisclosed payload for Space Systems/Loral. All of these launches are expected to take place from Cape Canaveral.

The maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, a more powerful rocket based upon the Falcon 9, is also pencilled-in for 2014.

This mission, which will demonstrate the new rocket ahead of a military launch next year, is believed to be targeted for the second quarter of the year and will use Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg.

The next US orbital launch is scheduled for Wednesday, when Orbital Sciences Corporation will use an Antares 120 rocket to deploy the first operational Cygnus spacecraft on a mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

(Images: SpaceX, USAF, NASA, ORBCOMM and L2).

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