There were two launches in the early hours today: a Falcon 9 out of Vandenberg AFB and an Ariane V out of Kourou, French Guiana.
The Falcon 9 delivered 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit. The first stage landed on the barge Just Read The Instructions. The ship Mr Steven attempted to catch one of the two payload fairing sections, but again was unsuccessful, with relatively high wind shear believed to be a contributing factor. All ten spacecraft were deployed properly and appear to be healthy. Unfortunately for those of us viewing at home, the notorious sea fog of Southern California rolled in before liftoff. But the rocketcam views were all great at least!
Then Ariane 5 departed from Kourou, carrying the next four elements of the Galileo satellite navigation constellation to orbit. When complete, Galileo will supplement GPS and GLONASS, and also provide a domestic navigation capability for users in the European Union in the event access to GPS or GLONASS is no longer available. This was the final flight of the Ariane 5 ES configuration, with a hypergolic upper stage. The Ariane ECA configuration, which is popular with commercial customers, uses a cryogenic upper stage that can only be relit once in orbit; this makes it suitable for large commsats and duplex launches, but not for more complex multi-payload launches such as this one, which requires multiple restarts. Ariane 5 will not perform any further Galileo launches; the next launches are expected in 2020 and will use the Ariane 6. The weather on the coast of French Guiana was unusually clear, so this one has some wonderful ascent ground photography.
SpaceX just set a record by boosting Telstar 19 VANTAGE, which at 15,600 pounds is the heaviest commercial commsat ever launched — and they also recovered the booster. This was possible because of two things: first, the Block 5 vehicle (“Falcon 9 Full Thrust”) has significantly improved performance, and second, SpaceX was able to negotiate with its customers to give them a better deal on the launch if they will accept needing to carry more propellant of their own to finish raising the orbit for geosynchronous transfer. This contributed to Telstar 19’s mass; it carries an unusually large propellant load.
The previous record for commercial commsat mass at payload separation was held by TerraStar 1, at 15,234 pounds, launched by an Ariane V nine years ago.
Telstar 19 VANTAGE will have Ku- and Ka-band beams servicing customers over a huge footprint, including Western Europe, Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, much of Canada (including some high priority customers in remote parts of Nunavut), the eastern US, the Caribbean, and much of South America.
USLaunchReport, a disabled veteran-run enterprise on Florida’s Space Coast, provides ground footage of launches, and they got some beautiful footage of this one. Skip ahead about four minutes to staging, where it’s up high, lit by the Sun, and the humid air near the ground is less of an obstacle to photography, and watch to the end when they start to cut in shots of the plume in the background and in the foreground you can see the impressive optical tracking system they got to use for this:
The last Block 4 Falcon 9 flew yesterday, boosting an unmanned Dragon capsule to the ISS for the CRS-15 mission (skip to about 18:50 for the launch):
Since this was the final Block 4 flight, SpaceX did not attempt to recover the booster. This was, however, its second flight; Core 1045 helped launch the TESS satellite on April 18, which is just a 72 day turnaround to its second flight, SpaceX’s fastest reflight to date.
Unpressurized cargo includes the ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) for JPL and a replacement latching end effector for the SSRMS. Pressurized cargo includes:
- Chemical Gardens (a crystal growth experiment)
- an experimental carbon fiber “factory” for the private company Made In Space (the third one flown to date)
- Crew Interactive Mobile (CIMON), a floating spherical robot trained to recognize and interact with European crewmember Alexander Gerst.
- Rodent Research 7, which will study microorganisms in the guts of a colony of “mouseonauts”
- BCAT-CS, a sediment research project
- Three Cubesats called Biarri-Squad for a multinational experiment to study potential military applications for smallsats (these will be experimenting with laser rangefinding and GPS to maintain relative position data)
- Three CubeSats from the Japanese-led multinational Birds-2 project performing a range of technology demonstrator experiments
- One of the Birds-2 CubeSats is Bhutan-1 (aka Bird BTN), the Kingdom of Bhutan’s first satellite
- Another is Bird PHL or Maya-1, the first Filipino CubeSat (not their first satellite
In their first launch of a scientific satellite for NASA, SpaceX has placed the Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Surveyor (TESS) into Earth orbit and successfully recovered the first stage. TESS is a follow-on to the massively successful Kepler space observatory. Like Kepler, it will use the transit observation method to detect exoplanets, but unlike Kepler, it will be an all-sky survey, reliant upon an unusual orbit in a 2:1 resonance with the Moon (to avoid ever coming too close to the Moon and having the orbit disrupted). The orbit is completely outside the Van Allen Belts, with a period of 13.7 days. TESS will be able to downlink to ground stations during its perigees, at a distance of 108,000 km (about three times further away than the geosynchronous ring). Although TESS has a nominal primary mission duration of two years, this orbit is expected to remain stable for decades, and the spacecraft will almost certainly be used to destruction like so many other NASA spacecraft, finding mission extension after extension until there is nothing more that it can do.
Falcon 9’s upper stage performed two burns, and then released TESS in a supersynchronous transfer orbit; the satellite itself will finish refining the orbit. The upper stage has by now disposed of itself over the Pacific Ocean, and the payload fairing conducted a water landing as part of SpaceX’s effort to reuse the fairings. (The company only has one fairing-catcher ship, Mr Steve, which is currently in California, unavailable for this mission. So far, the closest a returning fairing has gotten to Mr Steve is a few hundred yards, so there is still some refinement needed.)
A reused Dragon capsule launched by a reused Falcon 9 first stage is now en route to the ISS. The first stage was not recovered; it’s one of the older model stages, and SpaceX sacrificed it in order to conduct engineering tests during a water landing. There was no attempted fairing recovery, as the Dragon capsule does not require a fairing. But the launch was 100% successful:
Dragon is expected to rendezvous with the station on Wednesday, where it will go free-floating and be captured by the station’s SSRMS, which will pull it in to berth.
Yesterday, sixty years of spaceflights from Cape Canaveral were capped off in spectacular fashion. Because how better to celebrate the first satellite launched from Florida than with what is currently the latest?
To bookend these sixty years, here is the launch of Explorer 1 aboard a Jupiter-C rocket (essentially a modernized variant of the V-2), January 31 1958. It was a hastily assembled mission, taking the place of the Vanguard that had not yet made it to orbit.
And then here’s yesterday’s launch from the Cape, in an age where this almost starts to feel routine: a Falcon 9, with a reused first stage, blasting off to deliver GovSat-1 (aka SES 16), to provide secure communications for the government of Luxembourg and its allies, and operated by SES. The first stage performed a high velocity landing in the ocean, but as this was an experimental maneuver, the drone ship was not there to catch it; the stage survived splashdown, and will be towed to shore for engineering analysis, and then probably scrapped.