SpaceX is prepared to loft a hefty communications satellite into orbit tonight (Sept. 9) and then attempt to land a rocket’s first stage on a drone ship at sea.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Telstar 18 Vantage communications satellite, also known as Apstar 5C, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, during a launch window that starts at 11:28 p.m. EDT (0328 GMT on Sept. 10). You can watch it online here at Space.com, courtesy of SpaceX. In case of delays, the launch window stretches for 4 hours.
The satellite, which will operate as a partnership between the Canadian company Telesat and the Hong Kong-based company APT Satellite Co. Ltd., will provide broadcast, enterprise and government communications services over the Pacific Ocean, stretching from Hawaii across to India and Pakistan, according to a statement from Telesat . The satellite weighs in at a hefty 15,564 lbs. (7,060 kilograms), according to Spaceflight Now.
SpaceX will use one of its newest Falcon 9 rockets, the Block 5, for the launch — though, unlike for its previous Telstar launch in July, the company is lofting a new, rather than previously flown, rocket first stage. After the launch, SpaceX plans to attempt to land the stage on the company’s East Coast drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You.
SpaceX successfully test-fired the rocket’s engines on Sept. 5 at the launchpad, Launch Complex 40, but then the launch was delayed by 24 hours to complete preflight checkouts, SpaceX officials wrote in a tweet Thursday (Sept. 6). As of Friday (Sept. 7), the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron gave a 60 percent chance of favorable weather; the main risks are the possibility of thick cloud layers and cumulous clouds whose tops reach freezing temperatures.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Back in May, I stood near a massive blue countdown clock as the minutes and seconds ticked away to zero. I was surrounded by fellow space reporters, a small group of whom traveled to Florida all the way from Bangladesh. The excitement built and built — and then the launch scrubbed. The Falcon 9 just wasn’t ready to fly that day. But the next day would be a different story.
We all returned to our same viewing spot, adjacent to the countdown clock, and stared across the water at the sleek black-and-white Falcon 9 perched atop its launchpad, Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. This time, everything proceeded as expected: When the clock hit zero, smoke billowed and bright flames lit up the sky as the Falcon roared to life. The sound waves that washed over us several seconds later were noticeably louder than expected, even for this experienced launch-watcher. That’s because this wasn’t an ordinary Falcon, but a souped-up version.
Known as the Block 5, this is the final variant of SpaceX’s workhorse — meaning there will be no more major design changes. The design will stay the same from now on to help SpaceX achieve a major goal: rapid reusability. [See all our photos from the Block 5’s two launches]
The company already reuses the first stages of its spacecraft, but this iteration will take that to the next level. Previous versions of the Falcon 9 could be used only two or three times, which is an incredible accomplishment, but not enough for SpaceX founder Elon Musk. His plan is to make rockets more like commercial airplanes, capable of flying many times with no action (other than refueling) taken in between flights. According to Musk, the Block 5, which is a culmination of more than 10 years of development, will do just that.
Block 5 upgrades
To work toward that goal, SpaceX engineers outfitted this turbocharged Falcon with some sweet upgrades over its predecessors. The design changes — which include improved engines, a more durable interstage (the piece that connects the rocket’s two stages), titanium grid fins and a new thermal protection system — will help the booster hold up better to launch stresses. According to SpaceX, each Block 5 can fly 10 times or more times before requiring light refurbishments, and as many as 100 times before the booster is retired.
Musk has said that we will see a Block 5 launch, land and relaunch within the same day sometime next year. As the months tick away and the aerospace company focuses on its big task for the year, launching the first uncrewed test flight of the commercial crew program, that goal remains a lofty one. However, a more reasonable goal — one that SpaceX is close to achieving — is to see the same Block 5 booster launch more than two times in a year.
Following the first Block 5 launch on May 11, which placed Bangladesh’s first satellite — the Bangabandhu-1 — in orbit, SpaceX officials said they didn’t know when the recovered booster would fly again, as they would most likely take it apart and inspect it to make sure it performed as expected. So, it was a bit of a surprise when the company announced that the Bangabhandu-1 booster would fly again on Aug. 7, just 12 weeks later.
That second launch, at Cape Canaveral’s Pad 40, may have been more of a spectacle than the first. It’s like with each launch the booster tries to outshine itself. Sitting in folding chairs on a causeway across the water from the launchpad, a group of space reporters waited. The Milky Way was barely visible overhead. One spectator even brought a telescope, and we peeked at Mars — which shined above like a glowing copper orb — before turning the scope to the launchpad.
The Falcon appeared upside down in the viewfinder but stood ready to launch. We could see what looked like breath emanating from the rocket as the last of the cryogenic fuels that power the rocket were loaded. As the clock hit zero, the night sky lit up bright orange as the Falcon roared to life. Its engines were just as unexpectedly loud as they were the first time. But unlike its first trip to space, which was a bit more dramatic with several holds and a scrub, this flight went off right at the beginning of the window.
As the Falcon climbed to space, the glow from its engines could be seen for several minutes. Surprisingly, after the booster separated from the upper stage and started its descent, far in the distance, we could see the Falcon’s engines ignite for the first of its multiple planned landing burns. Cheers erupted over the loudspeaker as confirmation came in that the booster had touched down on the drone ship a second time.
SpaceX’s successful launch and landing of the Block 5 booster (on the company’s East Coast-based drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You“) with so little time in between is a huge step toward quicker re-flight times.
In another surprising twist, and before the second landing was confirmed a success, the SpaceX launch webcast seemed to suggest that this booster would fly a third time before the end of the year. (Good thing it stuck its landing). Though which mission that booster will be used on hasn’t been announced yet.
Returning to port
A few days after its second flight, the booster stood proudly perched on the deck of the drone ship as it made its way back to port. I stood with a crowd of rocket enthusiasts on the docks, welcoming B1046 (a designation given by SpaceX to identify the booster), some of the space buffs tracking the ship it rode in on to ensure they would get the first glimpse as it peeked over the horizon.
SpaceX’s priority is to get humans into space. Eventually, some of those people will end up on Mars. For now, the rocket-launching company needs to work on getting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). To that end, it recently showed off the hardware and astronauts that’ll be part of the historical mission.
The United States’ last crewed space mission (it was also the final shuttle flight STS-135) launched from Kennedy Space Center in 2011. Since then, US astronauts have hitched rides on Russian rockets. Meanwhile, SpaceX, Boeing and NASA are reviving US space flight with the Commercial Crew Program. It’s a boring name for something that’s exciting not only for NASA but also the four gentlemen who are testing (and will eventually be aboard) the Dragon spaceship when it launches.
To get to that point, SpaceX has spent years working closely with NASA and with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. The experienced astronauts have spent the past three years sharing their expertise with SpaceX on everything from placing buttons in the best area in the craft to building a chair that works best for reaching escape velocity (the velocity needed to escape the gravitational pull of a celestial body — in this case, Earth) to iterating the design of the rather stylish space suit they’ll be wearing.
Each has two shuttle flights under his belt; Hurley was also aboard the final US space launch. Along with astronauts Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins, they are scheduled to be part of the crewed launch in April 2019 (Demo-2). SpaceX is also planning a test flight in November this year (Demo-1) with no passengers onboard. There’s a lot to do before both these dates, but ahead of launch, SpaceX wanted to show off what was ready to go.
The company invited media to tour and learn about the Crew Dragon capsule and talk with astronauts and executives. The capsule itself was the biggest surprise. If you’ve ever seen photos of the inside of a space shuttle, chances are you remember the massive amount of gauges, knobs, levers and lights — like the cockpit of a commercial airline but with more stuff.
The Crew Dragon capsule is sparse — Swedish design sparse. There are four chairs and a three-display control panel with a touchscreen that sits in front of the two center seats. The left screen is for situational awareness and timeline. It has the spacecraft’s trajectory and when it’s expected to lose communication with the ground. The center screen is for attitude (the orientation of an aircraft or spacecraft) and location of the ISS and sun. The latter is for solar charging.