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.
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.)
First off, the best news: the upper stage appears to have performed its final burn on schedule! [UPDATE: final orbit is confirmed, with an aphelion extending nearly to the asteroid belt!] SpaceX is doubtless waiting for confirmation of final orbit before announcement; this is a little trickier when the object is heading into heliocentric orbit and is therefore more challenging to track. But spotters on the ground witnessed engine plumes consistent with the timing and expected ground track of the Falcon upper stage. This view was from Marana, AZ:
Less good news: while the two side cores made perfect landings back at the Cape, the central core missed the droneship. It’s unclear why at this point, but that’s definitely something that SpaceX will want to investigate. Still, recovery is gravy at this point in the program, so it’s not bad at all, and it definitely got *close* to the barge “Of Course I Still Love You”.
And then we’ll wrap up with some coolness! First, replay of the launch broadcast (skip ahead 22 minutes for the actual liftoff; skip to 25 minutes for a bit of David Bowie as we see fairing separation, revealing the mannequin “Starman” in the Tesla):
Now, the launch and landing as viewed by folks on the rooftop of the Cocoa Beach Hilton:
And I don’t know how long this next link will be good for, but Space Videos is streaming a reply of the Starman feed, showing the Tesla and its anthropomorphic occupant prior to that final burn:
Oh, and here’s a graphic showing the final orbit — nearly to the orbit of Ceres! The “Mars-crossing” target was well and truly achieved, and then some.
Sunday night, SpaceX launched the Zuma payload for an undisclosed customer of Northrup Grumman. It was a classified payload, presumably for the National Security Administration, as most of the other likely suspects (USAF, NRO) are not generally shy about claiming a particular payload as their own. The launch had been delayed several times, due to concerns with the payload fairing, but on Sunday, the launch appeared to go off perfectly. The broadcast followed the vehicle on camera up to stage separation, and then as they watched the first stage return to Florida, they announced fairing separation and everything else was secret. This is not unusual for classified payloads, and indeed, this isn’t even SpaceX’s first classified payload. After the launch, the SpaceTrack database (maintained by US Space Command, a branch of the USAF dedicated to tracking orbital objects for the sake of collision avoidance) added an object designated USA 280 to their catalog, which at first blush would suggest it had reached orbit.
Two-line elements for the object have yet to be posted, and amateur spotters do not yet report having captured the object in their telescopes. Northrup Grumman has said precisely bupkis about it, neither confirming nor denying that it reached orbit or didn’t. SpaceX has said the launch was “nominal” with the vehicle performing flawlessly. However, rumors have begun to swirl that the satellite may have not only failed but possibly even deorbited. The Wall Street Journal cited unnamed Congressional aides who claimed it had failed to separate from the Falcon 9’s upper stage, and consequently had been deorbited into the ocean when the stage cleaned itself up. But this has yet to be independently confirmed. Other rumors suggest a power failure, or a fault in its communication system, or some sort of damage during payload fairing jettison. As yet, however, no one is saying anything, and SpaceX is pressing ahead towards a very busy schedule in 2018, which would tend to imply the vehicle performed well.
Hmmm. Very interesting….
In the meantime, while we wait for drips and drabs of data to come out of program offices, here’s the launch coverage from SpaceX:
Citation: Did SpaceX’s secret Zuma mission actually fail?
A Falcon 9 rocket successfully placed the SES-11/EchoStar 105 spacecraft onto geosynchronous transfer orbit, and recovered the first stage after an exceptionally hot reentry from this high-energy trajectory. This was their third flight of a reused stage.
SpaceX completed one more launch early this morning from Vandenberg AFB, precisely placing the ten spacecraft on board into the vehicle into Plane 4 of the Iridium NEXT constellation, successfully recovering the first stage. There’s no rest for the weary, however — SpaceX is on target for another launch, this one from the opposite coast, on Wednesday.
Today was the scheduled liftoff day for the fifth X-37 mission (OTV-5), and the first aboard a Falcon 9. (X-37 was designed from the start to be compatible with almost any launch vehicle, including the Space Shuttle, but its first four launches were all aboard the Atlas V.) As a bonus, since SpaceX is still unable to use their original Florida launchpad, Cape Canaveral Air Station’s SLC-40, this launch used the pad they’re adapting for Falcon Heavy, Kennedy Space Center’s venerable LC-39A. So LC-39A got to launch another spaceplane after all. 😉 (LC-39A’s last spaceplane launch was STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program, just over six years ago.)
Coverage of the ascent stops with first stage separation, as normal for classified flights*, but since this was Falcon 9, we got to see coverage of the first stage continue all the way to touchdown back at the Cape. Now, SpaceX gets to scramble to safe it and stash it safely in a hangar in advance of Hurricane Irma.
*X-37 is not a classified spacecraft, but its missions are generally classified. This one does carry one unclassified payload, the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, for the Air Force Research Laboratory. It will “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment”. Satellites already use heat pipe technology to draw waste heat away from sensitive electronic components (since obviously fans don’t work for cooling a spacecraft computer), but this new technology will be lighter and cheaper. All the other payloads, as well as their quantity and the target orbit and any planned maneuvers, remain classified. But they are probably also experimental technologies, since X-37 offers a unique opportunity to test equipment for a long duration in space and recover it for extensive engineering analysis afterwards.