SpaceX Falcon 9 lofts Turkmenistan’s first satellite

by William Graham

Making its second launch in less than a fortnight, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket carried Turkmenistan’s first satellite to orbit Monday evening following a liftoff from Cape Canaveral. The launch set sail at 19:03 after a series of weather delays within the window, before deploying the TurkmenÄlem 52E satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Falcon 9 Mission:

The TurkmenÄlem satellite, which has a mass of 4,500 kilograms (9,900 lb), was constructed by Thales Alenia Space and is based upon the Spacebus 4000C2 satellite bus.

The satellite is owned by Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Communications, or Türkmenistanyň Aragatnaşyk ministrligi, who will operate it in conjunction with Monaco’s Space Systems International and SES of Luxembourg.

2015-04-27-130320Turkmenistan’s first satellite, TurkmenÄlem 52E is a communications spacecraft bound for geostationary orbit.

The Falcon 9 carried the satellite on the first leg of its journey, placing it into a geosynchronous transfer orbit from which the spacecraft will manoeuvre to its final location via its onboard thrusters. The satellite’s primary propulsions system is an Astrium S400 bipropellant engine.

The satellite is equipped with thirty eight Ku-band transponders, providing coverage of Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.

Twelve of the transponders have been leased to Space Systems International for the life of the satellite, in exchange for the use of Monaco’s geostationary slot at 52 degrees East. SSI have, in turn, leased these transponders to SES who will operate them under the name MonacoSat.

TurkmenÄlem is designed to operate for at least fifteen years.

Although TurkmenÄlem is Turkmenistan’s first true satellite, it is not the country’s first association with spaceflight. In August 2005, a capsule containing the country’s flag and the writings of then-President Saparmurat Niyazov was launched into orbit attached to the third stage of a Dnepr rocket.

The capsule remains in orbit. In addition, Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko was born in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, then part of the Soviet Union.

2015-04-27-130427Monday’s launch, which was the eighteenth flight of the Falcon 9 and the thirteenth for the v1.1 configuration in which the rocket will fly, comes less than two weeks after the successful deployment of the CRS-6 Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Departing from the same launch pad, Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Monday’s Falcon flew a very different mission.

Targeting a much higher orbit for its communications payload, the rocket was operating closer to its maximum capacity, meaning the rocket had to fly in its fully expendable configuration without legs or fins to facilitate first stage recovery.

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The CRS launch included a first stage recovery attempt using the SpaceX barge “Just Read The Instructions”. Although the stage did touch down on the platform its lateral momentum was too great so it toppled over and exploded.

2015-04-27-133531Without the additional weight of the legs, and not needing to save fuel for its powered landing, the fully expendable Falcon 9 is able to carry a larger payload to a higher orbit than its reusable counterpart.

Monday’s launch activities began with the rocket being powered up ten hours in advance of liftoff; with fuelling around the three hour mark.

Initially, the RP-1 propellant was loaded into the vehicle, with the oxidiser, liquid oxygen, beginning to tank twenty five minutes later. Fuelling was complete by the ninety minute mark in the count, however, liquid oxygen continues to be loaded at a trickle to top off the tanks as the cryogenic oxidiser boils off.

The launch was then held due to a violation of the weather rules.

2015-04-27-133752After finding a gap in the clouds, the final ten minutes of the countdown were controlled by an automated sequence that handles events as the rocket and payload switched to internal power and control.

During this time the flight termination system – used to destroy the vehicle should it stray off course – was powered on and armed and the strongback structure used to transport and erect the rocket was lowered away from the vehicle.

In the last two minutes before launch the Range Control Officer and Launch Director gave their final clearance to launch, the rocket’s tanks were pressurised, final automated checks took place and the pad water system, or Niagara, was activated.

2015-04-27-133832The Falcon’s first stage was powered by nine Merlin-1D engines, arranged in an octagonal, or OctaWeb, configuration. Igniting three seconds before the countdown reaches zero, they ramped up to full thrust to enable the rocket to lift off.

Climbing away from Cape Canaveral to the East over the Atlantic Ocean, the vehicle passed through the area of maximum dynamic pressure, or max-q, around eighty seconds into flight followed shortly by the rocket achieving supersonic speed.

The first stage burned for about four seconds short of three minutes before depleting its propellant and shutting down. Stage separation occurred at the three-minute mark with the second stage’s single Merlin Vacuum engine igniting eight seconds later for the first of its two burns.

2015-04-27-133919Lasting about five and a half minutes, the first burn of the second stage established the vehicle in an initial parking orbit.

Early in the burn the payload fairing separated from around TurkmenÄlem at the nose of the rocket, having completed its task of protecting the satellite during atmospheric flight. Fairing separation occurred a little under a minute after staging.

Following its first burn, the upper stage and payload coasted for about seventeen minutes before restarting to perform an apogee raise burn.

1 OA NASA Space Flight 304x234Lasting about a minute, this burn established the planned geosynchronous transfer orbit for deployment of the TurkmenÄlem satellite. Spacecraft separation occurred about five minutes after the end of the burn, at approximately thirty two minutes elapsed time.

The twenty fourth orbital launch of 2015, including February’s Vega launch which briefly achieved orbit during a series of tests following a successful suborbital primary mission, Monday’s launch was fifth for the Falcon 9 in 2015, moving it ahead of Russia’s Soyuz as the most-launched rocket of the year so far.

SpaceX will next be in action with another Dragon mission, CRS-7, to the International Space Station. Currently scheduled for June, that launch is also likely to mark the next first stage recovery attempt.

(Images via SpaceX).

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