SpaceX ready for its next launch; its customer, even more so

F9 SES-8 patch

Mission patch for Monday’s scheduled launch of the SES-8 satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket.

There’s a certain degree of confidence that one comes to expect from SpaceX as they discuss their upcoming launches and future plans, and understandably so: they consider themselves the upstart launch vehicle company that is disrupting an existing industry. And you expect any company to be confident in its own products or services. Sometimes, though, SpaceX’s customers can be even more enthusiastic than the company itself.

“We’re extremely excited to be here. We’re extremely excited to be the first commercial customer on SpaceX,” said Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of SES, the European satellite operator whose SES-8 satellite is scheduled to be launched at 5:37 pm EST (2237 GMT) Monday on a Falcon 9 v1.1 from Cape Canaveral. Halliwell, talking to reporters Sunday afternoon on a conference call, spoke highly of SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket even though SES will be the first to have one of its satellites launched into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) by that rocket.

“The entry of SpaceX into the commercial market is a gamechanger,” he said during the half-hour call. He believes SpaceX, with its low-cost launches, will reshape the commercial launch industry, which today is dominated by a few companies, including Arianespace, International Launch Services, and Sea Launch. “It’s really going to shake the industry to its roots,” he said.

Halliwell is not concerned about what happened on the previous Falcon 9 v1.1 launch nearly two months ago. On that launch, after the Falcon 9’s upper stage successfully deployed its satellite payloads, SpaceX attempted to restart the upper stage, but failed. The company had offered few details about the incident, but SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said last month that it was wrapping up the investigation, and indicated then that they did not consider the problem a major issue.

A few days ago the company offered some more details: the liquid fuel used for the igniter for the second stage engine froze before the scheduled engine restart, apparently because it was close to the liquid oxygen propellant lines. “We’ve added a lot of insulation to those lines to make sure the cold oxygen doesn’t impinge on those lines,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said during a brief appearance on the call. (He was, he explained, taking his kids on a trip to Disney World Sunday afternoon.) “We believe that will address the restart issue.”

Halliwell sounded convinced as well. “We worked extremely closely with the SpaceX people,” he said. “We’re very, very confident. We understand exactly what the issue was… and we are pretty confident all the risk from that particular element has been retired. We’re ready to go with the launch.”

The proof will come 27 minutes after launch, when the second stage is restarted after an 18-minute coast. If successful, the Falcon 9 will place the 3,138-kilogram SES-8 satellite into an unusual “supersynchronous” transfer orbit, with an apogee of 80,000 kilometers, well above the geosynchronous orbit belt of about 36,000 kilometers. Shotwell said SpaceX worked closely with SES to develop this orbit; a similar one, with an even slightly higher apogee, will be used on its next launch, of the Thaicom 6 satellite next month.

Halliwell said such supersynchronous transfer orbits aren’t unusual for SES. “It allows us to reduce our fuel usage to decrease the inclination” using the spacecraft’s own engine post-deployment, he said. “It allows us to maximize our on-orbit stationkeeping fuel and lifetime for the remainder of the mission.”

Halliwell said this was not the first time SES has been involved in a new (commercially speaking, at least) launch system: SES was the first commercial customer of the Proton rocket in the mid-1990s, a vehicle that now has become one of the major commercial launch systems in the world. “We understand the impact that this is going to have on the commercial spaceflight world,” he said. “I would say—and it’s not really an understatement—that the entire commercial spaceflight world is looking tomorrow to see the success of this flight. It’s going to change the industry.”

1 comment to SpaceX ready for its next launch; its customer, even more so

  • Stuart

    SpaceX launch as others look on, some hoping it fails others asking themselves how do they cut their prices and a few thinking of going out of business.

    The crossroads of the space launch revolution is actually today … if, I must and I must add if, it is successful…!

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