SpaceX on track to return to launch action amid LSP status upgrade

by Michael Baylor

After several weeks without a launch, SpaceX is returning to action, conducting the static fire test ahead of the launch of Es’hail 2 – a telecommunications satellite for the Qatar Satellite Company. Meanwhile, SpaceX was recently certified to fly the most valuable scientific payloads in NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP).

The last SpaceX launch was on October 6th, when a Falcon 9 successfully sent SAOCOM 1A into orbit. A several week gap between launches has been a rarity for SpaceX in 2018.

Next week’s mission – Es’hail 2 – will tie SpaceX’s 2017 record of 18 launches in a single year with four more launches still remaining in 2018 after this upcoming mission.

The Falcon 9 will place Es’hail 2 into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) – before the Mitsubishi built spacecraft utilizes its onboard thrusters to reach its final destination.

The routine pre-launch static fire test for the mission occurred on November 12 at 8:30 pm local time, after an initial attempt earlier in the day was scrubbed with just seconds remaining in the count.

During the static fire test, a fully fueled Falcon 9 rocket ignited its nine Merlin engines for a few seconds to validate that all systems on the vehicle are operating nominally.

After the static fire, SpaceX will perform a quick data review before confirming the launch date.

If all goes well, that date is expected to be November 15th with a window opening at 15:46 Eastern (20:46 UTC) and closing at 17:29 Eastern (22:29 UTC).

The Es’hail 2 mission will be SpaceX’s first from LC-39A since Bangabandhu-1 in May. Since then, the launch complex has been undergoing renovations to support NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Notably, the Crew Access Arm is clearly visible on the pad’s Fixed Service Structure (FSS).

39A CAA and 39A Transporter Erector during testing last week – via L2

Following the Es’hail 2 launch, the first stage booster will perform a landing on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) in the Atlantic Ocean.

Just four days later, SpaceX will launch Spaceflight Industries’ SSO-A mission from Vandenberg. The launch will feature dozens of small satellites for various customers with the payload adapter and mission services provided by Spaceflight.

Importantly, the first stage booster used to perform the mission is believed to be B1046.3. If so, it would make the launch the first to feature the same Falcon 9 first stage flying for the third time.

While the Falcon 9 booster is capable of landing at Landing Zone 4 during this mission, such a recovery will not be possible due to a conflict with the range.

In this case, the conflict is the Delta IV Heavy and its NROL-71 payload which are scheduled to launch from SLC-6 on November 29th.

SLC-6 is located downrange from SpaceX’s SLC-4E launch site.

While SpaceX’s launch profile is not a significant risk to SLC-6, the landing trajectory poses a greater risk to the downrange facilities.

As a result, a land landing during the SSO-A launch would only be permitted if it were to occur after the Delta IV Heavy launch.

Example of ULA and SpaceX launch pad locations – via Jack Beyer composite photo showing a Delta (II) launch and a Falcon 9 launch – via L2

Therefore, SpaceX is currently planning to recover the first stage on the droneship Just Read the Instructions (JRTI) – pending FCC approval.

The instantaneous launch window for SSO-A is at 10:32 Pacific (18:32 UTC).

After that mission, SpaceX will return to the east coast. CRS-16 – a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station – is scheduled to launch from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 4th at 13:38 Eastern (18:38 UTC).

Teams will then quickly turnaround the SLC-40 launch complex for the GPS III-1 launch on December 15th. The window for that mission opens at 9:24 Eastern (14:24 UTC).

CRS-15 launches on a Falcon 9 – via Nathan Baker for NSF/L2

A first stage recovery will not be attempted during that mission.

Finally, SpaceX will wrap up 2018 with the eighth and final Iridium NEXT launch on December 30th from Vandenberg. The instantaneous launch window for Iridium-8 is at 8:38 Pacific (16:38 UTC).

Following launch, the first stage booster – designated B1049.2 – will perform a landing on JRTI in the Pacific Ocean.

Also in December, the Falcon 9 which will launch Demonstration Mission-1 (DM-1) is expected to go vertical on LC-39A for pre-launch checkouts, according to SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell’s recent comments at the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium.

DM-1 is an uncrewed test flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It will help certify SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

Currently, the DM-1 mission is tentatively scheduled to occur no earlier than January 8th, 2019, per L2 information. The exact target date is expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks.

DM-1 – the first flight of Dragon 2 – launches on a Falcon 9 – as envisioned by Nathan Koga for NSF/L2

Additionally, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft passed NASA’s standard review for visiting vehicles in late October – an important milestone ahead of the DM-1 launch.

The space agency is also gaining confidence with the Falcon 9 rocket.

NASA LSP recently certified the Falcon 9 as a Category 3 launch vehicle.

According to SpaceX, “Category 3 launch vehicles are certified to support NASA’s highest cost and most complex scientific missions.”

The LSP scorecard of vehicle category – via NASA LSP

Shotwell added, “LSP Category 3 certification is a major achievement for the Falcon 9 team and represents another key milestone in our close partnership with NASA. We are honored to have the opportunity to provide cost-effective and reliable launch services to the country’s most critical scientific payloads.”

Such certification will allow SpaceX to compete with United Launch Alliance for NASA LSP’s Category 3 missions.

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