SpaceX is preparing to launch its second mission from KSC’s Pad 39A, with the expendable Falcon 9 tasked with the EchoStar 23 mission conducting a Static Fire test on Thursday following an issue during Tuesday’s attempt – ultimately slipping the launch date to March 14. Meanwhile, SLC-40 is preparing for a return to operations in August, in turn initiating the second phase of work on 39A for Falcon Heavy.
Preparations for EchoStar 23:
The historic launch pad, famed for launching Apollo and Shuttle missions, performed well in its new role, with the post launch pad shakedown report noting only minor – and expected – damage from the nine Merlin 1D engines.
Per the L2 report, the damage was to hydraulic plumbing and wiring, which has since been repaired.
Engineers have also added some additional blast protection to prevent future damage, aiding SpaceX’s goal of an increased launch cadence as it works through a busy order book.
That next launch on the schedule involves the EchoStar 23 geostationary satellite.
The satellite was built by SSL, based on its 1300 bus. It is a flexible Ku-band satellite capable of being used from eight different orbital slots. It is expected to be initially used in a 45 degree slot over Brazil, with an operational lifetime of 15 years.
The Static Fire test is effectively a full dress rehearsal ahead of launch day. The launch control team and the rocket – minus the payload – undergo the same flow as they will expect ahead of launch. This allows for a test of the major countdown items such as propellant loading and Ground Support Equipment (GSE) operations.
A 3.5-second firing of the nine Merlin 1D engines highlights the test, which – among numerous other data points – provides information on engine ignition and shut down commands.
The window for test lasts around six hours, which allows breathing space within the window for any unforeseen troubleshooting.
The initial test window opened at 6 pm Eastern on Tuesday, with the target T-0 tracking 7:30 pm Eastern. However, 30 minutes into the window, an unspecified issue resulted in the test being delayed 24 and then 48 hours to allow for inspections. The T-0 for Thursday’s firing was at the opening of the test window at 6 pm Eastern.
Following the test, the rocket’s propellant will be drained back ahead of the vehicle returning to the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) for payload mating.
At the same time, SpaceX engineers will be conducting a data review into the test, which in turn feeds into the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) – at which point SpaceX officially sets the launch date.
Due to the delays with the Static Fire test, SpaceX is now targeting a window that opens at 01:34 Eastern on March 14 and lasts for 2.5 hours. March 16 is the backup date. March 14 was the date for the Delta IV WGS-9 launch. ULA has yet to comment on the status of its launch schedule, the Delta IV will now move to the right on the schedule.
The Falcon 9 involved with this launch is classed as expendable, meaning the Falcon 9 won’t be returning for another spectacular landing at LZ-1 or on the Drone Ship. It will instead head for a watery grave in the Atlantic.
SpaceX has become a master of returning its first stages back home safely, with the next launch involving yet another milestone in its reusability aspirations. The mission to launch the SES-10 satellite will involve a Falcon 9 booster that previously launched and returned safely home for refurbishment.
Falcon 9 Stage 1 (1021) was previously used to launch the CRS-8 Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), before returning home for what was the first time a booster had successfully landed on the Drone Ship “Of Course I Still Love You”.
Following post launch safing and processing at Port Canaveral, the stage was housed in the HIF at 39A before taking a trip to Texas where it underwent a test firing program at SpaceX’s McGregor facility early this year.
Now back at the Kennedy Space Center, this returned Falcon 9 S1 is preparing for a March 27 launch date, although that date is currently tagged as “Under Review”.
SES-10 is a geostationary communications satellite to be operated by SES and was designed and manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space. The spacecraft is based on the Eurostar E3000 platform.
With Falcon 9 stages in numerous locations, tracking which stage is becoming a major challenge for even the most ardent SpaceX follower.
Yet another Falcon 9 booster was being tested at McGregor just this week, believed to be 1034, as followed in L2’s Falcon Stage Watch Section.
With schedules subject to change, launch date placeholders – usually used to “book” a slot on the Range – only provide a level of guidance to SpaceX’s manifest plans.
L2 Range information for both KSC and Vandenberg show two launches arranging dates in April from the East Coast, although this does not include the CRS-11 Dragon, with ISS sources claiming they are waiting on an updated launch schedule.
On the West Coast, three missions have set placeholders for launch from Vandenberg, namely Iridium 2 on June 17, the Formosat-5 mission on July 22 and Iridium-3 on August 24.
SpaceX’s successful debut of 39A returned its ability to launch missions from the East Coast, previously lost after SLC-40 was badly damaged when the Falcon 9 set to launch AMOS-6 was destroyed during a Static Fire anomaly.
Engineers continue to repair the pad in preparation for what is currently classed – according to the latest source information – as a target of August for the return of its operational capability.
L2 information also notes that a new Transport/Erector/Launcher (TEL) will be installed on the pad, with the same design – albeit smaller – than the new TEL on 39A.
It was also noted that SpaceX is working a plan that involves returning operations to SLC-40 before then working on 39A to prepare it for the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket.
This work will take “at least 60 days” to complete, focusing on the 39A TEL table – which is currently specific to the single core Falcon 9 – and Tail Service Masts (TSM).
Once the work is complete, SpaceX is expected to conduct a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) for the Falcon Heavy – which will include two side boosters that have previously been involved with Falcon 9 missions.
The debut of the Falcon Heavy is not expected to take place until the latter part of the year and is currently believed to be without a specific payload.
It is likely that the rocket will be launched with a mass simulator, allowing for a validation flight of the rocket ahead of its first full mission with the challenging US Air Force Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) flight profile.
While SpaceX’s immediate focus is with a series of Falcon 9 launches, the debut of Falcon Heavy will open up new mission potential, such as the recently announced private lunar flight involving the Dragon 2 spacecraft.
(Images: SpaceX, Instagram, NASA and L2 – including NSF L2 member Gary Blair (McGregor Testing) and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)
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