SpaceX’s May launch manifest takes shape; company prepares for Block 5 debut

by Chris Gebhardt

With its two April launches behind it, SpaceX is deep into processing for its coming slate of three missions planned for May 2018.  The three flights will see two flight-proven launches with SES-12 and the Iridium NEXT-6/GRACE-FO rideshare as well as the highly anticipated debut of the Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9, which will launch Bangladesh’s first satellite to orbit No Earlier Than 7 May.

SpaceX’s May manifest:

Following on the heels of success with Iridium NEXT-5 for Iridium Communications, CRS-14 for NASA, and TESS for NASA, MIT, and Orbital ATK, SpaceX is sailing toward its next round of three missions in May 2018.

The three flights will launch a total of nine satellites into orbit, Bangabandhu-1, Iridium NEXT 51-55, GRACE-FO -1 and -2, and SES-12.  Two of those will be launched into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (Bangabandhu-1 and SES-12) and seven into polar Low Earth Orbit (the Iridiums and two GRACE-FO satellites).

However, the May campaigns will actually begin in April.

First Block 5 on the McGregor Test Stand on Monday – via Gary Blair for NSF/L2

On Monday 30 April, SpaceX was to roll the Bangabandhu-1 vehicle out to LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, for Static Fire. This is now set to take place on May 1, following the slip to the launch date.

This will be the first time that a Block 5 Falcon 9 graces a SpaceX launch pad and will be the first Block 5’s final major test before its inaugural flight.

Once connected to Pad-A’s systems, SpaceX will put the first Block 5 (core B1046) through a standard countdown and fueling process, validating all of the booster and second stage systems up to and including an engine firing.

The core has already undergone Acceptance Testing at McGregor, Texas.  At a pre-launch news conference for the TESS flight last week, Hans Koenigsmann of SpaceX stated that the first Block 5’s acceptance runs were extremely smooth, noting that the Block 5 upgrade made it through all of its McGregor testing far faster than previous major Block upgrades to the Falcon 9 have.

An exact window for Static Fire on Monday is not yet known, but typical windows for such events usually stretch for no more than six hours based on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and KSC Emergency Operations Support capabilities.

As with flight-proven boosters and the Falcon Heavy Static Fire campaigns, the first Block 5 Static Fire is expected to last between 5 and 7 seconds to ensure a good amount of data on engine health and performance is gathered.

Once a successful Static Fire is complete, the Bangabandhu-1 vehicle will be safed, detanked, taken horizontal at the pad, and transported back into the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at LC-39A where it will then be mated with its payload.

SpaceX’s 39A HIF – photo by Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

Bangabandhu-1 will be the first satellite for the Southeast Asian nation of Bangladesh.

Inside the HIF, the rocket and payload will undergo final launch checks as engineers work through the standard L-2 day Launch Readiness Review (LRR).

Once the LRR is complete and all approvals received, the first Block 5 will be taken back out to Pad-A for launch.

Bangabandhu-1 was slated to launch No Earlier Than (NET) Friday, 4 May 2018 in a roughly 2 hour 25 minute launch window extending from 16:00-18:25 EDT (20:00-22:25 UTC). However, it’s been since confirmed that reports in a newspaper in Bangladesh – which noted Bangabandhu-1’s launch has been pushed to the right by three days, citing the Telecom and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar – are correct.

According to the official Eastern Range request from SpaceX, Bangabandhu-1’s booster will perform an ASDS landing on Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean.

Once Bangabandhu-1 is successfully in orbit, SpaceX will shift gears and coasts for its next mission: Iridium NEXT-6/GRACE-FO.

This rideshare mission will be SpaceX’s 10th flight of 2018.  For comparison, by mid-May last year, SpaceX had completed six missions.

Iridium NEXT-6/GRACE-FO will see seven satellites launched into a polar orbit from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.

The mission, the first rideshare between Iridium Communications and NASA, will feature five Iridium NEXT satellites and the twin GRACE-FO (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on) satellites launched on a flight-proven Falcon 9.

The mission will use core B1043.2, a booster previously used to launch the much-discussed Zuma mission from Cape Canaveral, FL, in January.

Falcon 9 Block 4 core B1043 lands at LZ-1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 7 January 2018. (Credit: SpaceX)

At four-months 20 days between Zuma and Iridium NEXT-6/GRACE-FO, this will be the fastest Falcon 9 first stage turnaround between flights to date.

The mission is on track to launch NET 19 May 2018 at 13:04:24 PDT (20:04:24 UTC) with Static Fire preceding launch by about five days, or roughly 14 May.

B1043.2 is a Block 4 Falcon 9 and is expected to be expended into the Pacific Ocean after carrying out post-separation atmospheric control tests for SpaceX.

One day after Iridium NEXT-6/GRACE-FO’s launch, SpaceX will be back in action in Florida with the Static Fire of core B1040.2.

That core was previously used to launch the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane in September 2017 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.  This time, the core will loft the SES-12 communications satellite for the SES corporation of Luxembourg to service the Middle East and Asia-Pacific region.

Following a successful Static Fire, core B1040.2 and its second stage will be mated with its payload and prepared for launch on NET 24 May 2018 in a 58 minute window extending from 00:29-01:27 EDT (04:29-05:27 UTC) from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

After this, the Eastern Range in Florida will close on 29 May for a scheduled 11 day period of maintenance and upkeep.  These planned Range down periods are communicated well in advanced to all Range customers and are vital to ensuring reliable Range functionality.

The Range will reopen on 9 June for normal launch operations.

Related Articles