SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 rocket for a secret mission in the early hours of Sunday morning. Liftoff is scheduled for 12:27 a.m. EDT (04:27 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, with the rocket’s official mission being the deployment of a single replacement satellite to communications operator Globalstar.
The Globalstar-2 FM15 spacecraft was manufactured by Thales Alenia Space as part of Globalstar’s Second Generation Constellation communication satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). While 24 of its sister craft deployed between 2010 and 2013, it has remained on Earth so far as a ground reserve. Now it is launching to be on hand to bolster the network as existing satellites begin to show their age.
Globalstar uses its fleet of satellites to provide voice and data communications around the world. The company’s first-generation constellation was deployed between 1998 and 2000 and consisted of 48 operational satellites plus in-orbit spares. The second-generation system was originally designed with 32 satellites but scaled down to the 24 that are currently in orbit.
These second-generation satellites, including FM15, are based on Thales’ Extended Lifetime Bus 1000 (ELiTeBus-1000) platform and have an operational lifetime of 15 years. The 24 satellites already in orbit were launched in groups of six to the summit Soyuz-2-1a/Fregat rockets, which flew from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Globalstar plans to replace these satellites with a third-generation spacecraft that will enter service from 2025. Earlier this year, the company awarded a contract to Canadian firm MDA Corporation to build the first 17 replacement satellites.
FM15 was part of an initial batch of 25 satellites purchased for Globalstar’s second-generation constellation. The company intended to order additional satellites as spares; however, in 2011 Thales rejected an order for six additional spacecraft after a contract dispute between the two companies. This left FM15 as Globalstar’s only available spare satellite, and it has been kept in reserve until now. The launch of FM15 will help keep the constellation operational until MDA-built satellites begin to come online.
With a mass of 700 kilograms, the Globalstar-2 satellite is well below the payload capacity of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was selected to put it into orbit. Moreover, the The Falcon 9s The first-stage thruster is to land aboard the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). Just read the directions down from Cape Canaveral. ASDS is typically used when the rocket is carrying heavier payloads or is targeting higher orbits, where performance constraints prevent it from flying with a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) profile instead.
These factors lend weight to rumors that a clandestine US government payload may also be on board the rocket for Sunday’s launch, joining Globalstar-2 FM15 for the journey into orbit. If so, this is an unusually high level of secrecy: for most classified launches, the responsible agency is at least identified and the launch is announced – often with an unclassified mission name such as NRO Launch (NROL) designations used by missions for the National. Recognition Office (NRO).
A notable past exception to this practice was a previous Falcon 9 launch, performed in January 2018. That launch carried a satellite called Zuma, built by Northrop Grumman for an as yet undisclosed US government customer. Flying an RTLS mission, Falcon successfully delivered Zuma into a planned low Earth orbit with an inclination of approximately 51°.
As part of the payload, however, Northrop Grumman had provided its own breakaway mechanism to attach Zuma to the rocket, and it wouldn’t have worked. This meant the satellite was still attached to Falcon’s upper stage when it performed a deorbit burn to safely dispose of itself, and was destroyed when the stage burned up in Earth’s atmosphere during of his return.
With Globalstar’s constellation operating in a 52° orbit, if FM15 has a co-passenger succeeding or replacing Zuma, the rocket won’t have to make a particularly large adjustment to its orbit in order to deploy both satellites on their flight. intended. Classes. On the other hand, the Zuma launch did not require ASDS for recovery – although this could be explained by the additional presence of the Globalstar satellite and the need to deploy the satellites in different orbits.
Two NRO launches have also flown to similarly inclined orbits in recent years, both aboard Falcon 9 rockets. NROL-76 was launched in May 2017 and NROL-108, consisting of two satellites, followed in December 2020. It is currently unclear if these missions are related to each other, with observers speculating that they could be technology demonstrators.
It’s also possible that the second payload could be another lightweight satellite – or, indeed, several smaller satellites – leaving Falcon 9 with more performance to spare for orbit-changing maneuvers. This could allow it to offload its secret cargo into a completely different orbit after first dropping the Globalstar spacecraft on its intended path.
Either way, short of officially acknowledging the clandestine aspect of Sunday’s launch, the first indications of what Falcon 9 has deployed into orbit will likely come from amateur satellite observers posting their sightings to mailing lists like SeeSat-L.
However, before payloads can be observed in orbit, they must first get there. SpaceX will use a Falcon 9 rocket to carry out Sunday’s mission, with liftoff taking place from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at the Cape Canaveral Space Station.
Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket consisting of a reusable first stage booster and an expendable second stage. A payload fairing – which can also be salvaged and reused – encloses the satellites at the nose of the rocket. SpaceX launched its first Falcon 9 in June 2010, and the vehicle has since flown more than 150 successful missions, with just one in-flight failure.
Nine Merlin-1D engines, developed in-house by SpaceX, power the first stage of the rocket during the first phase of its flight. After lifting off from SLC-40, the rocket will roll and flip on a northeast heading to align with its target orbit. About 70 seconds into flight, it will cross Max-Q, the zone of maximum dynamic pressure, going supersonic at about the same time.
The first stage that will power Sunday’s mission is booster B1061-9. A veteran of eight previous launches, he first flew in November 2020 and has flown one of the most eclectic collections of missions for any Falcon 9 booster. His first two missions were dedicated to the commercial crew program of NASA, assisting the program’s first operational crew rotation flights to the International Space Station by reinforcing Crew Dragons Resilience and Effort in orbit on their respective Crew-1 and Crew-2 missions.
The booster’s first uncrewed launch was in June 2021 when it helped deploy the SXM-8 communications satellite for SiriusXM before flying a Cargo Dragon mission, CRS-23, in August. B1061 NASA’s fifth deployed Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) launch last December. The booster has since performed a Starlink launch – Group 4-7 in February – and has flown the last two multi-payload Transporter missions in April and May.
The B1061-9 will power Sunday’s mission for about the first two minutes and 31 seconds of flight before its engines shut down: an event referred to as Main Engine Cutoff, or MECO. Stage separation will occur approximately four seconds later, with Falcon’s second stage continuing to orbit with the payloads as B1061-9 begins its return to Earth. The second stage will ignite its single Merlin Vacuum (MVac) motor, a vacuum-optimized version of the Merlin-1D, approximately eight seconds after stage.
The two halves of the fairing lift away from the rocket at T+two minutes and 54 seconds, having completed their job of protecting the payload during ascent through the atmosphere. After reentry, each half of the fairing will deploy a parachute as it descends into the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX’s recovery boats will pick them up and return them to shore for future reuse.
The second stage will complete a series of three burns before deploying the Globalstar payload at T+ one hour, 53 minutes and 21 seconds. If unannounced rideshare payloads were to be deployed on Sunday’s mission, it’s unclear whether they would separate before or after Globalstar.
As the second stage heads into orbit to complete Sunday’s primary mission objectives, B1061-9 will return to Earth. After the stages separate, it will reorient itself and deploy the grid fins that will help guide it as it falls back into the atmosphere. With the drone ship Just read the instructions positioned downstream to receive it, no boostback burn will be necessary during this mission, so it will only have to perform entry and landing burns during this flight.
B1061 arriving at Port Canaveral on Monday pic.twitter.com/oiB0iU2kHK
— Gav Cornwell ?? (@SpaceOffshore) April 7, 2022
(Photo caption: B1061 returns to Port Canaveral aboard Just Read The Instructions after Transporter-4 mission)
Intake combustion helps reduce heating on the stage as it re-enters the atmosphere, using three of the Merlin-1D engines. Shortly before touchdown, the mid-engine will ignite again for the landing burn, slowing the B1069-9 to a smooth touchdown on the deck of Just Read The Instructions.
Sunday’s launch will be the third Falcon 9 mission in the space of 36 hours, which has used all three SpaceX launch pads. The trio of launches began with a Starlink mission from Falcon’s other east coast launch pad: Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center at 12:09 a.m. EDT (4:09 p.m. UTC) Friday. This was followed by the launch of Germany’s SARah-1 radar imaging satellite from the Vandenberg space force base on the west coast on Saturday. The SARah-1 launch lifted off at 7:19 a.m. PDT (14:19 UTC), less than 15 hours before the Globalstar mission.
(Main image: A Falcon 9 sits at SLC-40 before the launch of the Turksat-5A mission in January 2021. Credit: Stephen Marr for NSF)
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