Air Force sees upcoming Falcon Heavy launches as key to certifying reused rockets

SpaceX is gearing up for the first commercial launch of its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket as soon as early April with a communications satellite for …
SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket climbs into the sky from launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is gearing up for the first commercial launch of its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket as soon as early April with a communications satellite for Arabsat, and the U.S. Air Force hopes the two side boosters from the Arabsat mission can be safely landed and reused for the military’s first Falcon Heavy mission this summer, an exercise officials said will help certify previously-flown hardware for future national security launches.

With SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon spacecraft back on Earth after a successful six-day test flight to the International Space Station, the company’s next mission will mark the return of the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful launcher, comprised of three Falcon 9 boosters and 27 Merlin main engines to generate more than 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

Workers at pad 39A are outfitting a transporter/erector for the Falcon Heavy mission after the structure supported a series of Falcon 9 launches over the last 13 months.

Since the Falcon Heavy’s first flight in February 2018, SpaceX has debuted a new version of the Falcon 9 rocket known as the Block 5, featuring more lift capacity, a beefed-up heat shield and other changes to make the launcher more reliable and easier to reuse, according to SpaceX officials.

Officials have not announced a launch date for the Falcon Heavy’s next mission, but multiple officials suggest the flight is scheduled to take off in the first half of April from launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The payload slated to ride the Falcon Heavy into orbit is Arabsat 6A, a powerhouse communications satellite designed to deliver television, Internet and mobile phone services across the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin and delivered to Cape Canaveral in January for fueling and final pre-launch processing.

Owned by Arabsat, a satellite operator based in Saudi Arabia, the new telecom relay station will be parked in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator at 30.5 degrees east longitude.

Like the Falcon Heavy’s first flight last year, the rocket’s two side boosters will jettison from the center core stage around two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, flip around and reignite their engines to head back to Florida, targeting nearly simultaneous touchdowns at SpaceX’s landing zone a few miles south of pad 39A.

The Falcon Heavy’s twin side boosters touch down at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after the rocket’s first flight on Feb. 6, 2018. The center core stage was lost during a landing attempt at sea. Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon Heavy’s center core stage will attempt a landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida. The core stage on the Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch last year crashed in the sea near the recovery vessel, but the rocket delivered its payload — a Tesla Roadster with a spacesuit-clad mannequin in the driver’s seat — on a trajectory to escape the gravitational bonds of Earth and roam the solar system.

For commercial and military customers, the Falcon Heavy’s extra lift capability will allow SpaceX to place payloads such as broadcasting satellites closer to their final positions in geostationary orbit. On three launches last year, SpaceX used Falcon 9 rockets to place communications satellites for Telesat and Telkom Indonesia into elliptical transfer orbits with apogees, or high points, below the geostationary belt.

By targeting a “sub-synchronous” transfer orbit, the Falcon 9 could set aside enough fuel to land its first stage, leaving the satellites themselves to conduct additional maneuvers to reach their operating positions. In the case of Telesat’s Telstar 18 VANTAGE and Telstar 19 VANTAGE satellites, ground crews loaded extra fuel into the spacecraft to accomplish the orbit-raising maneuvers. With the additional fuel load, the Telstar 19 VANTAGE spacecraft, which rode a Falcon 9 into orbit last July, became the heaviest commercial communications satellite ever launched.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, outlined the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy performance metrics during a presentation in October at the International Astronautical Congress in Germany. All the figures below assume a payload deployment into a reference geostationary transfer orbit ranging from 115 miles (185 kilometers) to 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) in altitude, with an inclination of 27 degrees to the equator. If a satellite is released into such an orbit, it must use its on-board propulsion to provide an extra 4,000 mph (1,800 meters per second) of velocity to reach a circular geostationary orbit roughly 22,000 miles over the equator.

Here are the performance numbers provided by Koenigsmann for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to such an orbit, with variables introduced for different booster landing scenarios.

  • Falcon 9 with a first stage return to land: 3,500 kilograms (7,716 pounds)
  • Falcon 9 with a first stage return to a drone ship: 5,500 kilograms (12,125 pounds)
  • Falcon 9 with no first stage recovery: 6,500 kilograms (14,330 pounds)
  • Falcon Heavy with side boosters returning to land, and a center core drone ship landing: 8,000 kilograms (17,637 pounds)
  • Falcon Heavy with side boosters and center core landing on drone ships: 10,000 kilograms (22,046 pounds)
  • Falcon Heavy with no recovery: 15,000+ kilograms (33,069+ pounds)

SpaceX retired the Falcon Heavy side boosters that launched and landed on last year’s inaugural mission, but the Arabsat 6A flight will launch with new Block 5 boosters, giving engineers the opportunity to more easily recover and refurbish the rockets for the following Falcon Heavy flight, currently scheduled no earlier than June.

That mission is sponsored by the Air Force’s Space Test Program, and is set to carry roughly two dozen spacecraft into orbit, releasing the satellites at different altitudes and inclinations using multiple firings by the Falcon Heavy’s second stage engine. The satellites are primarily designed for scientific observations and technology demonstrations.

The long-delayed rideshare mission is known as STP-2, and SpaceX has had the launch in its backlog since 2012. Delays in developing and certifying the Falcon Heavy have delayed the STP-2 launch from its original target date in 2015.

SpaceX and the Air Force originally intended the STP-2 mission to be a demonstration flight to help certify the Falcon Heavy for launches of more expensive national security satellites. But the Air Force announced last June that the Falcon Heavy was certified for such critical missions after the rocket’s successful debut earlier in the year, and the military has since awarded SpaceX two contracts for national security launches using the Falcon Heavy.

The Arabsat 6A communications satellite was delivered to Cape Canaveral in January for final preparations to launch on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Some of the satellites assigned to the STP-2 launch host NASA experiments. Nicky Fox, the head of NASA’s heliophysics division, said in December that SpaceX intended to reuse the side boosters from the Arabsat 6A mission for STP-2.

An Air Force spokesperson this week confirmed the agreement to use previously-flown side boosters for the STP-2 mission. The center core will be new for the Arabsat 6A and STP-2 launches.

“This provides an early opportunity for the Air Force to understand the process for using previously-flown hardware with the goal to open future EELV missions to reusable launch vehicles,” the spokesperson said in response to an inquiry from Spaceflight Now.

Since the Pentagon began awarding launch contracts to SpaceX, the Air Force has not agreed to launch any of the military’s most vital payloads, such as secure communications, early warning, reconnaissance and navigation satellites, using a previously-flown booster. The STP-2 mission is a lower-priority launch for the Air Force.

A GPS navigation satellite launch in December marked SpaceX’s first mission carrying a payload in the Air Force’s uppermost tier of space missions, for which military officials require insight and oversight over what commercial satellite operators would receive on a typical launch.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

If SLS Won’t Launch NASA’s Moon Mission, What Will?

The only two rockets that might be up to the task are the Delta IV Heavy and SpaceX Falcon Heavy, but neither can complete the mission as currently …

NASA is going back to the moon. The agency has made their goal of a return moon mission clear over the past few years, building a new rocket to carry astronauts and planning a space station in orbit around the moon for the mid 2020s. But during a Senate hearing on Wednesday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine made a surprising announcement: while humans might be returning to the moon, it won’t be NASA that gets them there.

According to Bridenstine, NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is not developed enough to meet the agency’s timeline for future moon missions. In other words, the SLS won’t be ready fast enough. “SLS is struggling to meet its schedule,” Bridenstine said in the hearing. “We are now understanding better how difficult this project is, and it’s going to take some additional time.”

NASA’s difficulties with the SLS haven’t exactly been a secret. Initially, the SLS was meant to be completed in 2016, but the project gets a new delay every year or so that pushes back the date again and again. Currently, the first test flight is scheduled for some time in 2020, but there’s plenty of time between now and then for yet another delay.

That’s a problem for NASA, because the agency has a mission coming up that it needs the SLS for called Exploration Mission-1, and it’s a first step toward landing humans on the Moon again. The mission would send NASA’s upcoming Orion crew capsule around the moon to test the capabilities of the system.

Exploration Mission-1 is supposed to launch in 2020 aboard an SLS rocket. But if the SLS is only beginning its first test flights at the same time, there’s no way it will be ready for an Orion capsule. That leaves NASA with two choices: delay the mission, or find some other rocket to go with. According to Bridenstine, the agency is preparing to go with option number two.

“I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitment,” Bridenstine said at the hearing. “If we tell you, and others, that we’re going to launch in June of 2020 around the Moon, I think we should launch around the Moon in June of 2020. And I think it can be done.”

So if NASA is going to launch Orion in 2020 anyway, what rocket is it going to use? There are no rockets that can actually replace the SLS, which is designed to be the largest rocket in history. Of the handful of heavy-lift rockets currently in operation, none of them can come close to matching the SLS.

The only two rockets that might be up to the task are the Delta IV Heavy and SpaceX Falcon Heavy, but neither can complete the mission as currently designed. So, the experiment will have to be modified. Instead of one launch, Exploration Mission-1 will use two: one for the Orion capsule, and another for an upper stage rocket to bring the capsule to the moon.

That’s not ideal for NASA, and not just because the agency won’t get to use its own rocket. Turning one launch into two increases the complexity and makes it more likely that something will go wrong. That could pose a big problem once humans start to fly in the Orion capsules in Exploration Mission-2.

Still, with the mission date fast approaching NASA doesn’t have very many other choices. Either NASA relies on a smaller private rocket, or they push the date of the mission back. Sometime over the next year we’ll find out for sure which path NASA chooses.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

SpaceX Moon Mission Launch Could Happen In June 2020, Thanks To NASA

The SpaceX Moon mission launch could happen sooner than expected as Elon Musk’s space company is said to be the frontrunner of NASA’s …

The SpaceX Moon mission launch could happen sooner than expected as Elon Musk’s space company is said to be the frontrunner of NASA’s planned Moon exploration.

According to CNBC, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a Senate committee that they are considering the use of commercial rockets for a lunar crew test flight instead of the agency’s SLS spacecraft. The mission is tentatively scheduled for June 2020 and if all goes to plan, SpaceX could potentially win the contract.

“I think we should launch around the moon in June of 2020, and I think it can be done. We need to consider as an agency all options to accomplish that objective. Some of those options would include launching the Orion crew capsule and the European service module on a commercial rocket,” Bridenstine said.

The NASA administrator mentioned that the space agency could consider using two heavy-lift rockets and hinted of the “amazing capability that exists right now” in the U.S. space industry. Bridenstine’s statement could mean two very possible contenders of the mission: United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX, which are currently the most active private space firms today. Both companies are part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Between the two, however, SpaceX seems to be the most likely choice. SpaceX is fresh from the success of its Crew Dragon capsule demo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) and the spacecraft’s recent return back to Earth without any problems.

SpaceX lead designer Musk’s vision of offering a more cost-effective option for space missions might also bode well for NASA. Currently, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is priced at $150 million per launch. This is a big difference compared to Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket, which costs roughly $350 million per launch.

There is also the question on whether or not ULA could be ready to do a Moon mission to align with NASA’s 2020 timeline as the company needs at least two to three years to prepare for a launch. In comparison, SpaceX is capable of high volume launches.

“If speed is of the utmost importance, then they may be willing to pay more than SpaceX’s stated price. SpaceX is clearly the front-runner given this time frame,” Chad Anderson, CEO of investment firm Space Angels, said.


Musk and BridenstineElon Musk’s SpaceX could land contract to launch NASA’s moon mission. Pictured: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (L) speaks with SpaceX chief Elon Musk during a press conference after the launch of SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo mission at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 2, 2019.Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

What makes Friday’s Delta IV launch different from a SpaceX mission?

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket will introduce some smoke and fire to the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day weekend, which is set to light up the …
CLOSE

From Falcon Heavy to Atlas V, see every single Space Coast rocket launch of the year. Emre Kelly, FLORIDA TODAY

CONNECTTWEETLINKEDINCOMMENTEMAILMORE

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket will introduce some smoke and fire to the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day weekend, which is set to light up the evening sky on Friday.

The 218-foot-tall Delta IV will take the Air Force’s 10th Wideband Global SATCOM spacecraft to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 37 during a window that opens at 6:56 p.m. ET. The window closes at 9:05 p.m.

If it does launch on time, it will mark the first sunset launch of the year for the Space Coast. But how does it differ from a SpaceX launch?

► First, ULA doesn’t land its boosters like SpaceX. Instead, it pursues an expendable model (though SpaceX does this for some missions, too) that ditches the rocket’s first stage over the ocean. So don’t expect a post-launch landing.

► Second, due to Delta IV’s four strap-on solid rocket motors, the launch will leave a trail of smoke behind it during liftoff. This differs from SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for example, which for the most part doesn’t leave a bright white, vertical plume. This is likely to be extra special with sunset occurring 35 minutes after the 6:56 p.m. liftoff.

► Third, though it’ll be miles away from spectators, Delta IV is mostly orange – a striking departure from a white-and-black Falcon 9. Some segments of the rocket are white, too, but for the most part is orange. Some of its color should be visible if lighting conditions are right.

This will be the final launch of the WGS program, which produced enhanced communications satellites for American and allied warfighters. And if successful on Friday, this will mark Delta IV’s 39th mission.

Also on Friday, meanwhile, Titusville will host the 42nd annual Space Coast Warbird Airshow with a fireworks display that night. Those wanting a good location to view the launch can also head down to Cocoa Beach, which will also host the Beach ‘N Boards Fest this weekend.

Contact Jaramillo at 321-242-3668 or antoniaj@floridatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AntoniaJ_11.

Support local journalism: Subscribe to FLORIDA TODAY at floridatoday.com/subscribe.

Photos: Delta IV rocket launch from Cape Canaveral with WGS-9

Posted!

A link has been posted to your Facebook feed.

A Delta IV lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force

Buy Photo
A Delta IV lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017 carrying the WGS-9 military communications satellite. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY
Buy Photo
A Delta IV lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force

Buy Photo
A Delta IV lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017 carrying the WGS-9 military communications satellite. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY
Buy Photo
A Delta IV lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force

Buy Photo
A Delta IV lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017 carrying the WGS-9 military communications satellite. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY
Buy Photo
A Delta IV lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force

Buy Photo
A Delta IV lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017 carrying the WGS-9 military communications satellite. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY
Buy Photo
A Delta IV rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air

Buy Photo
A Delta IV rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017. Craig Bailey, FLORIDA TODAY-USA TODAY NETWORK
Buy Photo
Spectators watch from Cocoa Beach as a Delta IV rocket

Buy Photo
Spectators watch from Cocoa Beach as a Delta IV rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017. MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY
Buy Photo
Spectators watch from Cocoa Beach as a Delta IV rocket

Buy Photo
Spectators watch from Cocoa Beach as a Delta IV rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017. MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY
Buy Photo
Spectators watch from Cocoa Beach as a Delta IV rocket

Buy Photo
Spectators watch from Cocoa Beach as a Delta IV rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017. MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY
Buy Photo
A Delta IV rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air

Buy Photo
A Delta IV rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, March 18, 2017. MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY
Buy Photo

Interested in this topic? You may also want to view these photo galleries:

    Replay
Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

Last SlideNext Slide

CONNECTTWEETLINKEDINCOMMENTEMAILMORE
Read or Share this story: https://www.floridatoday.com/story/tech/science/space/2019/03/13/what-makes-fridays-delta-iv-launch-different-spacex-mission/3152188002/

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

A NASA Journey to the Moon May Need to Find Another Rocket or Two

… the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and the Falcon Heavy from SpaceX, the rocket company founded …

The largest rockets currently built by private companies are smaller than the Space Launch System, so if NASA decides on this approach, the payload for the mission would need to be split between two rockets. The Orion capsule and its service module, a component built by the European Space Agency to provide power and propulsion, would ride to orbit on one rocket. A fueled rocket stage for propelling Orion to the moon would go up separately.

The two pieces would then rendezvous and dock in orbit before heading to the moon. Mr. Bridenstine noted that Orion currently lacks the ability to dock with another spacecraft in orbit. “Between now and June of 2020, we would have to make that a reality,” Mr. Bridenstine said.

Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi and chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, noted: “This is 2019.”

A commercially launched mission would allow extended testing of Orion and the service module, one of the main goals, but it would push the first flight of the Space Launch System further into the future.

Mr. Bridenstine did not name which commercial rockets might be used, but the two that are powerful enough are the Delta 4 Heavy from the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and the Falcon Heavy from SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk.

The Orion has been launched once already on top of a Delta 4 Heavy, in 2014, for a crewless test flight, but that did not go to the moon. The Falcon Heavy has only flown on its February 2018 test launch.

At the hearing, Mr. Bridenstine continued to describe the big NASA rocket as a core component of the space agency’s plans. But if the commercial approach works for the test flight, some space watchers wonder why the same strategy would not work for missions carrying astronauts.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts