SpaceX completes static fire ahead of JCSAT-14 mission

by Chris Gebhardt

SpaceX has completed a crucial static firing of their Falcon 9 rocket ahead of the upcoming mission to loft the JCSAT-14 satellite for the Tokyo-based SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation. The static fire took place late on Sunday at SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station ahead of a planned launch on Thursday, 5 May.

Road to JCSAT-14 static fire:

With all Falcon 9 first stages, the rocket was built and assembled at SpaceX’s Hawthorne California facility before it was shipped via road and security escort to the company’s McGregor, Texas, test facility.

2016-05-01-150313Once at McGregor, the first stage was put through a series of tests before it was erected on the test stand and put through a full duration hot fire test to evaluate the health of all nine engines and verify that all plumbing, equipment, wiring, and software functioned properly during powered operations.

After completing its successful hot fire at McGregor, the first stage was shipped to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in mid-April.

Upon its arrival at SLC-40, the Falcon 9 first stage was transported into its integration facility at the pad where teams performed receiving inspections and final preparations for first stage/second stage mate.

The first and second stages were subsequently mated last week ahead of Sunday’s planned static fire.

For SpaceX, a static test fire in the days prior to launch ensures the functionality of the propellant and propulsion systems of the Falcon 9 as well as all of the launch pad’s systems prior to the all-important Launch Readiness Review (LRR).

Thus, every static test fire involves a full, fast-paced propellant loading sequence, launch countdown and engine ignition operations, and testing of the pad’s high-volume water deluge system.

2015-02-08 12_19_41-Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9's 10th Flight with ORBCOMM OG2 - YouTubeThis complete run-through provides SpaceX and the launch team with a full dress rehearsal for the actual launch and allows them to identify and fix issues with the vehicle and/or pad prior to the commencement of actual launch operations.

The beneficial nature of this static-fire-for-every-mission approach was seen first-hand on the ORBCOMM-2 mission in December 2015 when a series of static fire attempts over multiple days encountered multiple issues with the super-chilled oxidizer debuting on that mission that were identified and resolved before a flawless liftoff.

That static fire led to procedural changes and increased understanding of how deep cryo liquid oxygen interacts with the Falcon vehicle during loading and launch operations.

2015-01-06 00_38_25-Falcon 9 v1.1 - Google SearchFollowing the JCSAT-14 static fire, completed late on Sunday, teams will perform an immediate analysis of the Falcon 9’s engine and vehicle data following a successful static fire.

The vehicle was then be de-tanked, lowered back to the ground by the Transporter Erector, and rolled back to its pad-side integration hanger for final integration processing in anticipation of the launch.

Around the same time, engineers and senior management will meet to conduct the LRR, which will confirm the launch date for JCSAT-14.

Currently, launch is targeted for NET (No Earlier Than) 5 May 2016 during a launch window extending from 01:21-03:21 EDT (05:21-07:21 UTC).

JCSAT-14 satellite:

SpaceX won the launch contract for the JCSAT-14 satellite in January 2014 after successfully completing the company’s first two Geostationary Transfer Orbit GTO missions.

Originally manifested for launch in the latter portion of 2015, launch of JCSAT-14 was delayed to its current timeframe following the loss of the CRS-7 mission in June 2015.

2016-04-30-193922Following a resumption of flight operations in December 2015, the JCSAT-14 mission was officially granted a launch slot following the CRS-8 mission to the Space Station, which launched on 8 April 2016.

In terms of final preparation for launch, Space Systems Loral (SSL) – the company that designed and built the satellite for SKY Perfect JSAT – noted that they successfully delivered JCSAT-14 to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on 14 March 2016.

“It has been an honor to work together with SKY Perfect JSAT in building the JCSAT-14 satellite,” said John Celli, president of SSL. “We are very pleased that the satellite is now at launch base and look forward to a successful launch campaign.”  

JCSAT-14 will replace and expand on the capacity of JCSAT-2A at the 154° East longitude orbital location.

2016-04-29-173524In all, JCSAT-14 is designed to provide service for broadcast, data networks, and internet connectivity for maritime and aviation for 15 years or longer to the Asia, Russia, Oceania, and the Pacific Islands region.

“SSL is a world leader in satellite manufacturing, and a valuable partner in the expansion of our fleet,” said Shinji Takada, Representative Director, President and CEO of SKY Perfect JSAT. “Our corporate goal is to protect safety and peace of mind while contributing to the formation of a vibrant society. We look forward to the launch of JCSAT-14, which helps to contribute to this overarching goal.”

JCSAT-14 is based on the powerful SSL 1300 platform, which has a long history of reliability and the flexibility to support innovation and evolving technologies.

In total, JCSAT-14 marks the 102nd satellite that SSL has delivered based on this successful platform.  

SSL is also building the JCSAT-15 and JCSAT-16 satellites, of which JCSAT-15 will launch on the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket and JCSAT-16 will launch on another SpaceX Falcon 9.

Perfecting the landing: Targeting ASDS after “hot entry” mission

As has become normal for SpaceX launches, the company will attempt to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on the ASDS barge “Of Course I Still Love You”, which will be positioned down range along the launch track in the Atlantic Ocean.

The drone ship was observed as departing from Port Canaveral on Sunday.

2015-03-19 23_40_33-SpaceX ASDS - Google SearchUnlike the most-recent barge landing on the CRS-8 mission to loft a resupply flight to the International Space Station, the JCSAT-14 landing attempt will be more in line with that of the SES-9 mission earlier this year than the April ISS resupply landing.

Both the SES-9 and the upcoming JCSAT-14 missions are high velocity launches for the Falcon 9, meaning that once the first stage separates and reorients itself for landing on the barge, it will slam back into Earth’s atmosphere at a higher velocity and higher altitude than other missions – thus performing what is termed as a “hot entry”, trajectory toward the ASDS barge.

The high-velocity nature of the launches also equates to a lower propellant reserve within the Falcon 9’s tanks to support the engine burns needed to softly land on the barge.

2014-11-25 11_40_22-SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship ready for action _ NASASpaceFlight.comFor SES-9, this resulted in what some have termed as a “suicide plunge”.

Moreover, the high-velocity nature of the reentry and landing profile for SES-9 led Elon Musk and SpaceX to be unusually upfront about the negative chances of a successful barge landing, with some even questioning whether the first stage could survive the “hot entry” profile in the upper atmosphere to even attempt a barge landing.

Surprisingly enough, the first stage of the SES-9 mission did successfully make it to the ASDS barge at the end of its suicide plunge to begin slowing itself to a safe landing velocity.

However, the low propellant reserve became a crippling factor in the final seconds of landing, as the first stage ran out of enough propellant to successfully maintain the landing burn and slow itself to an acceptable landing velocity and orientation.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 13.20.45However, the almost successful nature of the SES-9 landing attempt and review of post-flight data led to a notable change in tone from Elon Musk during the post-launch news conference for the CRS-8 mission in which he discussed the “hot entry” landing for JCSAT-14.

During the 8 April news conference, Mr. Musk described the JCSAT-14 landing as “tough” considering the stage will be “coming in hot.”

For SpaceX, perfecting high-velocity mission landings on the ASDS is viewed by many in the industry as the next crucial step in perfecting the rocket landing technology thus far successfully demonstrated by SpaceX for the company’s eventual goal of having a fleet of reusable Falcon 9 first stages to help lower the cost for access to space.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 13.24.20A single-engine landing burn profile is thought to be possible for this mission given what is believed to be a greater propellant margin post first stage separation than was carried on SES-9 – though it is noted that this is entirely dependent on the actual mass of the JCSAT-14 satellite, which is classed as “protected information” by the vendor.

However, even if a single-engine landing burn profile is possible for this mission, it is also possible that SpaceX may opt to attempt a multi-engine, last-minute landing burn profile in an effort to gather more data on and attempt to perfect this landing technique.

SpaceX ReturnThe option to choose the more riskier landing option would not be out of character for the company, which opted to perform a barge landing on the CRS-8 mission to attempt to perfect that landing strategy rather than performing a RTLS landing back at the Cape, which was completely possible given the flight profile of that mission.

Nonetheless, while considerable attention will be paid to the attempted landing, the landing on the ASDS is not the primary aspect of the mission, nor is it the primary focus of the flight, which is to successfully delivered the JCSAT-14 satellite into its proper geostationary orbit for service to the Asia, Russia, Oceania, and the Pacific Islands region.

(Images: via SpaceX, Space Systems Loral, and L2 – including work via L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full hi-res gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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