November 24, 2013
With just over 24 hr. to go, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) founder Elon Musk says the company’s new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket is ready to launch its first commercial payload to supersynchronous transfer orbit Nov. 25 from SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla.
A successful launch of the SES-8 commercial communications satellite could help SpaceX unseat United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin joint venture whose Atlas V and Delta IV rockets hold a virtual monopoly on launching Pentagon, NASA and intelligence community payloads.
“We’re hoping to provide a forcing function for increased competitiveness in the launch vehicle industry and potentially for improving the technology across the board,” Musk stated in a pre-launch conference call with reporters Nov. 24, adding that SpaceX competitors will have to quickly catch up or risk losing “significant market share” to the Falcon 9.
“They are now going to need to improve their rocket technology in order to compete, and that’s a good thing for the future of space,” Musk says.
The launch window for the Nov. 25 mission opens at 5:37 p.m. EST, when the Falcon 9 v1.1 is expected to carry the Orbital Sciences Corp.-built SES-8 satellite to supersynchronous transfer orbit for Luxembourg-based SES, the world’s second largest commercial fleet operator by revenue. A supersynchronous orbit is one where the apogee is significantly greater than geosynchronous altitude.
“To have the increased apogee altitude allows us to optimize the fuel usage on the satellite and to maximize our on-orbit station-keeping fuel lifetime for the remainder of the mission,” says SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell. “We’ve done it many, many times before.”
Accurate orbital insertion of SES-8 is critical to SpaceX, which is counting on three successful Falcon 9 v1.1 missions -- including two to be launched consecutively – in order to obtain U.S. government certification to launch sensitive national security payloads.
A Sept. 29 debut of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket from the company’s new launch site at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., successfully lofted an experimental Canadian science satellite to low Earth orbit. However, frozen igniter fluid lines were to blame for the failure of an upper-stage restart of the new Merlin 1D vacuum engine during the first Falcon 9 v1.1 launch.
According to SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin, the company did not detect the fluid line problem during ground tests because “ambient air kept the lines warm.” It is unclear whether thermal testing was conducted. “We’ve added insulation and made sure that cold oxygen can’t impinge on the lines” in future missions, she says.