The U.S. Air Force needs it. So do commercial satellite operators and manufacturers developing new platforms with low-cost launch services in mind. But after the debut last month of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, the promise of an affordable new entrant to the commercial launch market is still just a promise.
Following liftoff Sept. 29 from a new launch pad at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., the Falcon 9 v1.1 sent a small Canadian science satellite and three experimental payloads to polar low Earth orbit. The mission demonstrated the rocket's nine new first-stage Merlin 1D engines in a new “Octaweb” configuration, plus significantly longer fuel tanks and a larger payload fairing. It also affirmed that SpaceX is equipped to meet the terms of a $1.6 billion contract withto launch 20 metric tons of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard its Dragon cargo vessel by the end of 2015.
However, after delivering its payloads to low Earth orbit, the Falcon 9 upper stage attempted—and then aborted—a planned reignition of its new Merlin 1D vacuum engine, dealing a blow to non-customers counting on SpaceX to loft payloads to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), the destination of most telecommunications satellites.
Since 2010, when the start-up space company founded by Internet tycoon Elon Musk debuted the baseline Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral AFS, commercial satellite operators have been eager for SpaceX's success, hoping it will drive down prices among established providers, notably Europe's Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, managed by Arianespace and International Launch Services of Reston, Va., which markets commercial missions of Russia's Proton.
At an advertised $56.5 million per launch, almost $14 million less than a Chinese Long March, Falcon 9 has also garnered support from the U.S. Air Force, which sees it as a potential alternative to United Launch Alliance (ULA), the- duopoly that charges a small fortune to loft military payloads atop Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets.
To date, SpaceX has achieved laudable success with three launches of its standard Falcon 9 to the ISS. However, “taking Dragon 220 miles above Earth is quite different than the missions we conduct,” Scott Correll, Air Force program executive officer for launch, told Aviation Week in April. “We want to make sure the upper stage can perform,” because most national security satellites are sent to geosynchronous or medium Earth orbits.
After the Sept. 29 launch, Musk discounted the mission's upper-stage demo as “optional,” dismissed the possible cause of the abort as “nothing fundamental” and said SpaceX is still working on operating the Merlin 1D in the vacuum of space.
With more than $1 billion in commercial backlog and a dozen GTO missions to execute over the next two years, Musk's comments sent launch insurers through the roof.
Yet the upper-stage anomaly did not stop SpaceX's first GTO customer, Luxembourg-based fleet operator SES, from shipping its SES-8 communications satellite to the Cape in preparation for launch on the next Falcon 9, now scheduled for no earlier than November.
“Since SES is the next customer on the Falcon 9 manifest, SES's engineering team is working closely with SpaceX to understand why SpaceX's new-version Falcon 9 didn't perform as planned during its Sept. 29 flight, which was to demonstrate reignition of its upper stage,” SES spokesman Yves Feltes said Oct. 8.
One of dozens of commercial spacecraft in the SES fleet, SES-8 is a small and arguably unremarkable satellite. Built by., the 3,200-kg (7,055-lb.) spacecraft features 33 Ku-band transponders and will bolster coverage for rapidly growing markets in the Asia-Pacific region.
But as the Falcon 9's first launch to GTO, SES-8 is a make-or-break mission for an ecosystem of fleet operators, space agencies, manufacturers and launch service providers that have spent years retooling business models and tailoring future planning based on Falcon 9.
Jim Simpson, vice president of business development at Boeing Commercial Satellite Services, says he is eager to see SpaceX launch SES-8, the success or failure of which will have an impact on Boeing's pioneering new all-electric spacecraft, the 702-SP. Roughly half the weight of a chemically propelled spacecraft, these satellites can be launched in pairs atop most rockets in production today. But Simpson says the 702-SP is designed to make the most of the Falcon 9's lift capacity—and its advertised price.
“The launch of SES-8 validates the economies of electric propulsion,” Simpson said on the sidelines of an annual satellite industry conference in Paris last month, when the mission was still slated for October. “That's a big milestone for Boeing.”
In the meantime, SpaceX is sharing data with the Air Force on three of its Falcon 9 v1.1 missions, aiming to certify the rocket to compete for launches of national security payloads. Last year, the Pentagon authorized the Air Force to negotiate a block buy of up to 50 Atlas and Delta cores from ULA, 14 of which are options that could be open to competition for missions beginning in 2015.
The Air Force says SpaceX must perform three successful launches of the Falcon 9 v1.1 with its new Merlin 1D engine—two of them consecutive—before the service will consider it viable to fly “Class A” government payloads that conduct critical missions such as missile-warning and protected communications.
“The Air Force considers the Falcon 9 v1.1 to be a new launch vehicle. As part of theCertification Agreement with SpaceX, this launch was a major milestone as one of three launches required,” says Col. Kathleen Cook, spokeswoman. “The Air Force is completing the formal process of determining the certification of this flight as the first of the three required SpaceX launches,” which she says could take several months due to the U.S. government shutdown.
SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin says because all mission requirements were met during the Sept. 29 launch, the company believes the Air Force will count the flight toward certification. “While the second-stage restart was not a mission or certification requirement for the Sept. 29 mission, it will be for the second and third certification missions,” Shanklin notes. The second certification flight will be SES-8, she adds, followed by the third, Bangkok-based Thaicom's Thaicom 6.
In the meantime, she says, “SpaceX continues to work closely with the Air Force to review all the flight data, including our understanding to date of the restart anomaly and the adjustments necessary.”