Bangabandhu-1 sucessfully launched by first Block 5 Falcon 9 – SpaceX’s goal of affordable access to space

by Chris Gebhardt

SpaceX has conducted the debut launch of the final variant of its powerhouse Falcon 9 rocket, the Block 5 -which will continue to further SpaceX’s already realized goal of providing low-cost, affordable access to space for countries that have not been able to afford such missions before.  The mission launched from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and lofted Bangladesh’s first satellite, Bangabandhu-1, to Geostationary Transfer Orbit. Thursday’s attempt was scrubbed, moving the Block 5’s debut to Friday.

Low-cost, reliable access to space:

The launch of Bangabandhu-1 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was not only notable because it was the first satellite of Bangladesh but also because of what it represents for SpaceX’s stated goal of reducing the cost of access to space, thereby allowing nations that have not been previously able to afford space programs access to such opportunities.

Part of SpaceX’s goal is not just the highly publicized eventual colonization of Mars but the proliferation of access to space in general – regardless of nation, geopolitics, and economic development status.

With the launch of Bangabandhu-1, SpaceX has now launched the first wholly-owned satellites for three developing nations – two of those in just the last 11 months alone, with the prior ones being Turkmenistan’s TurkmenAlem satellite in April 2015 and Bulgaria’s Bulgariasat-1 in June 2017.

Impressively, Bangladesh was able to afford its satellite and launch contract with SpaceX before meeting the eligibility requirements for “Developing Country” status by the United Nations, a status it only achieved two months ago on 17 March 2018.

Bangabandhu-1 in Geostationary Orbit. (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

Prior to obtaining “Developing Country” status, Bangladesh was considered a “Least Developed Country” by the UN based on its economic ability.  The fact that a Least Developed Country was able to afford the cost of a satellite and launch campaign speaks to the enormity of how SpaceX has changed the launch market with its incredibly low cost and reliable Falcon 9, which comes in at a baseline (brand new first stage) price of just $62 million USD, according to the company’s website.

SpaceX has also enabled Taiwan to launch its first indigenously built satellite, Formosat-5, into orbit last year and also permitted the Luxembourg government to launch its first military satellite, GovSat-1, earlier this year as part of the country’s NATO obligations – with the low price point of the Falcon 9 stated as a direct reason for the mission’s economic affordability.

SpaceX’s overall mission record to date shows a steady, reliable, and building track record of small nations coming to SpaceX and the Falcon 9 for their launch needs, and the same is true for corporations and the U.S. government – with SpaceX securing numerous launch contracts from SES and clandestine missions for the U.S. government.

With Block 5, that track record is very likely to not only continue but to expand as well, as one of the stated goals of offering discounted flight rates with flight-proven (reused) Falcon 9s will come to much larger fruition than it already has with the cadre of boosters that have been re-flown to date.

The first Block 5 Falcon 9 ascends into the Florida sky with Bangabandhu-1 for Bangladesh. (Credit: Nathan Koga for NSF/L2)

Moreover, in February, Elon Musk (founder, CEO and lead designer for SpaceX) stated that the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which flew for the first time in February and is slated to make its second flight in the October 2018 period (via a report by Dana Hull with Bloomberg), will now only fly with Block 5 boosters and second stages.  Amazingly, the Heavy’s overall cost, if all three first stage cores are flight-proven and its payload fairing is reused, could drop to the same price as a brand new Falcon 9.

A Super Heavy Lift Vehicle for the international community clocking in at a price point of under $100 million USD is already an incredible achievement (the Falcon Heavy’s base price – with all brand new stages – is already just $90 million USD), and Elon’s statement regarding a fully reusable Falcon Heavy price point provides some indication of the potential reduction in cost the Block 5 upgrade brings to the launch market.

Bangabandhu-1 launch and overview:

For its debut flight, the first completely Block 5 Falcon 9 (both the first and second stages are Bock 5 iterations) was tasked with taking the Bangabandhu-1 satellite into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).  Liftoff was targeted for 16:12 EDT (20:12 UTC) on Thursday, 10 May, the opening of a 2hr 10min launch window that closes at 18:22 EDT (22:22 UTC).

However, SpaceX noted the target T-0 had moved into the window by 30 minutes, to 16:42 EDT (20:42 UTC). It then moved again to 17:47 EDT, near the end of the window.

The countdown was proceeding to plan until T-58 seconds when the flight computer issued an abort. Given this was late in the window, not enough time was allowed for engineers to pinpoint the issue in time to pick up the count. The next attempt will take place on Friday.

However, with a near full countdown, the new procedures with Falcon 9 Block 5 were observed.

Unlike all SpaceX missions in 2017 and 2018, the preflight fueling sequence is very different.  At T-38mins, the SpaceX Launch Director verified that all was ready for the start of propellant loading.

RP-1 (rocket-grade kerosene) began flowing into the Falcon 9 first and second stages at T-35mins.

The first Block 5 Falcon 9 climbs the ramp up LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center ahead of its static fire test. (Credit: SpaceX)

Fueling of densified LOX (Liquid Oxygen) into the first stage also began at T-35mins.  At T-16mins, fueling of the second stage with LOX commenced.

The engine start sequence is the same, with the engine controller commanding ignition sequence start at T-3secs. During the second attempt, no issues were noting during the countdown.

Once Falcon 9 launched, the first stage burned for 2mins 31secs before all nine Merlin 1D engines shut down in preparation for stage separation at T+2mins 33secs.

The second stage’s MVac engine – a vacuum-optimized Merlin 1D – ignited at T+2mins 36secs to take the Bangabandhu-1 satellite to its initial orbit.

The first stage coasted upward from its shutdown point before beginning its descent toward the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.  The first stage performed its Entry Burn at T+6mins 15secs ahead of landing on Of Course I Still Love You 8mins 10secs after launch.

A Falcon 9 first stage in the final second of its descent to a landing on the ASDS drone ship. (Credit: SpaceX)

The second stage reached its initial Earth orbit 8mins 19secs after launch, with the MVac engine shutting down for a 19min 19sec coast.  The second stage reignited at T+27mins 38secs for a 59 second burn that placed Bangabandhu-1 into a GTO insertion trajectory.

Bangabandhu-1 separated from the top of the Falcon 9 at 33mins 38secs after launch.

Bangabandhu-1 is a communications satellite and is named after Bangladesh’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  It was designed and built by Thales Alenia Space with a lifetime service design of at least 15 years.

The communications satellite weighs 3,500 kg (7,700 lb), is capable of generating 6 kW of power, and carries 14 C-band and 26 Ku-band transponders with a 1600 megahertz capacity.  It’s final orbital destination will be in Geostationary Orbit (GEO) in the 119.1° East longitude geostationary slot.

Bangabandhu-1 will have a primary service area encompassing Bangladesh and the surrounding region and will offer Ku-band coverage over Bangladesh and its territorial waters in the Bay of Bengal, as well as India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia.  It will also provide C-band capacity for the entire region and will also enable broadband connectivity to rural areas throughout the Bangladesh.

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