Sunday, March 6, 2016

SpaceX Finally Launches SES-9 Satellite but Fails to Land Its Rocket

Falcon 9 rocket launches SES-9 satellite into space. Credit: SpaceX

Shrugging off four launch delays over nine days, an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket finally boosted a 5.3-ton communications satellite into orbit Friday, blasting off from Cape Canaveral on a high-energy trajectory that will help the new relay station enter service about 45 days earlier than originally expected. Under a crystal clear sunset sky, the 229-foot-tall rocket's nine Merlin 1D first-stage engines flashed to life just after sunset, at 6:35 p.m. (GMT-5), throttled up to 1.5 million pounds of thrust and pushed the Falcon 9 away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. However, the rocket crashed when it tried to land back on a sea platform.

SES-9 uses a chemical bi-propellant thruster to conduct major post-launch manoeuvers, completing its journey to its orbit at 36,000 kilometers above the Equator with an electric propulsion system. The on-orbit maneuvering throughout the 15 year nominal lifetime of the satellite will be done entirely by electric propulsion. SES-9 is planned to commence its services in the third quarter of this year.

SES-9 is SES’s largest satellite to serve the Asia-Pacific region. It weighed 5.3 tonnes at the launch and has 57 high-power Ku-band transponders – equivalent to 81x36 MHz transponders’ It thus provides significant expansion capacity to serve the buoyant and fast-growing video, enterprise, mobility and government sectors across Northeast Asia, South Asia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. SES-9 will be co-located with another SES satellite, SES-7, at the prime orbital location of 108.2 degrees East, and will replace the NSS-11 spacecraft at that position. SES-9 was built by Boeing Satellite Systems International.

“SES-9 is an important building block in our strategy to grow in dynamic regions and four prime sectors -- video, enterprise, mobility and government,” said Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer of SES. “Co-located with SES-7, the new satellite will reach 22 million TV homes and is designed to deliver high-performing connectivity to homes, enterprises and institutions across Asia. With its dedicated mobility beams, it will help us to capture new opportunities in the buoyant markets for maritime and aeronautical connectivity. The successful launch of SES-9 also takes us an important step further in our excellent relationship with SpaceX as a launch provider of growing importance, and is further proof of SpaceX’s professionalism and impressive performance. I congratulate the SpaceX and SES teams, who together have done an excellent job.”

Because of the heavy weight of the SES-9 satellite and the required high-energy boost to a super-synchronous transfer orbit, the Falcon 9's first stage did not have enough left-over propellant to slow down and fly back to a landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Instead, SpaceX attempted a landing on a barge stationed some 400 miles off shore.

Because of the rocket's trajectory and high speed at stage separation, company engineers were not optimistic. A brief video feed from the barge showed what appeared to be the rocket's exhaust plume nearing the landing platform, but it was off center and the television signal cut off before the rocket came into view.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted later that the stage "landed hard on the droneship. Didn't expect this one to work (v hot reentry), but next flight has a good chance."

The company hopes to perfect its landing techniques with incremental improvements and to eventually re-launch recovered stages, even those from high-energy trajectories, greatly reducing costs.

SES-9 is the first of three SES comsats scheduled for launch this year aboard Falcon 9 rockets with two more on tap next year. SES currently operates a fleet of 53 communications satellites with seven more under construction and four more in the development phase.


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