SpaceX launches Globalstar satellite on mysterious Falcon 9 mission – NASASpaceFlight.com

SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 rocket on a secret mission in the early hours of Sunday morning. The launch is scheduled for 12:27 EDT (04:27 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 of the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, with the official mission being the deployment of a single replacement satellite for communications operator Globalstar.

The Globalstar-2 FM15 spacecraft was manufactured by Thales Alenia Space as part of: Globalstar’s second generation constellation of communications satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). While 24 of its sister craft were deployed between 2010 and 2013, it has remained on Earth until now as a ground reserve. Now it is being launched to be on hand to strengthen the network as the existing satellites begin to show their age.

Globalstar uses its fleet of satellites to provide voice and data communications worldwide. The company’s first-generation constellation was deployed between 1998 and 2000 and consisted of 48 operational satellites plus spare parts in orbit. The second-generation system was originally designed with 32 satellites, but was scaled down to the 24 currently in orbit.

These second-generation satellites, including FM15, are based on Thales’ Extended Lifetime Bus 1000 (ELiTeBus-1000) platform and have an operational life of 15 years. The 24 satellites already in orbit were launched in groups of six atop Soyuz-2-1a/Fregate Missiles, which flew from the Baikonur cosmodrome. Globalstar plans to replace these satellites with a third-generation spacecraft that will be phased in from 2025. Earlier this year, the company awarded a contract to Canada’s MDA Corporation to build its first 17 replacement satellites.

FM15 was part of a first batch of 25 satellites purchased for Globalstar’s second-generation constellation. The company planned to order additional satellites as spares; however, in 2011, Thales rejected an order for another six spacecraft after a contractual dispute between the two companies. As a result, FM15 has become Globalstar’s only available reserve satellite, and it has been held in reserve until now. The launch of FM15 will help keep the constellation operational until the MDA-built satellites come online.

With a mass of 700 kilograms, the Globalstar-2 satellite is well below the carrying capacity of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket selected to launch it into orbit. also the Falcon 9s the first stage booster is expected to land aboard the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). Read Cape Canaveral downrange instructions. The ASDS is typically used when the rocket is carrying heavier payloads or targeting higher orbits, where performance limitations prevent it from flying a Return To Launch Site (RTLS) profile instead.

These factors bolster rumors that there could be a clandestine payload from the US government on board the rocket for Sunday’s launch, which will go into space along with the Globalstar-2 FM15. If so, there is an unusually high level of secrecy: for most covert launches, the responsible body is at least identified and the launch is announced – often with an unclassified mission name such as the NRO Launch (NROL)- designations used by missions for the National Reconnaissance Bureau (NRO).

A notable past exception to this practice was: a previous Falcon 9 launch, conducted in January 2018. That launch carried a satellite called Zuma, built by Northrop Grumman for an undisclosed US government customer. During an RTLS mission, Falcon successfully launched Zuma into a planned low Earth orbit with an inclination of approximately 51°.

However, as part of the payload, Northrop Grumman had provided its own separation mechanism to attach Zuma to the missile, and this reportedly failed. This meant the satellite was still attached to Falcon’s upper stage when it performed a deorbit burn to safely remove itself and was destroyed when the stage burned up on reentry.

Two Globalstar-2 satellites are primed for an earlier launch Arianespace

Since Globalstar’s constellation rotates in a 52° orbit, if FM15 has a fellow passenger who is a successor or replacement to Zuma, the rocket won’t have to make a particularly significant adjustment to its orbit to allow the two satellites to be on their scheduled courses. On the other hand, Zuma’s 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 similar inclined orbits in recent years, both aboard Falcon 9 rockets. NROL-76 was launched in May 2017 and NROL-108, which consisted of two satellites, followed in December 2020. It is currently unclear whether these missions are related, with observers speculating they may be technology protesters.

It’s also possible that the second payload could be another lightweight satellite — or even several smaller satellites — giving Falcon 9 more performance for orbit-changing maneuvers. This could allow it to unload its secret payload into an entirely different orbit after it first dropped the Globalstar spacecraft on its planned trajectory.

Anyway, barring any official acknowledgment of the clandestine aspect of Sunday’s launch, the first clues to what launched Falcon 9 into orbit will likely come from amateur satellite viewers posting their observations to mailing lists like SeeSat-L. .

Falcon 9 B1061 at SLC-40 ahead of the Transporter-4 mission in April Julia Bergeron for NSF

Before the charges in orbit can be observed, however, they must first be there. SpaceX will use a Falcon 9 rocket to carry out Sunday’s mission, launching from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket consisting of a reusable first stage booster and a replaceable second stage. A payload fairing — which can also be recovered and reused — encloses the satellites near the missile’s nose. SpaceX launched its first Falcon 9 in June 2010, and the vehicle has since completed more than 150 successful missions, with only one in-flight failure.

Nine Merlin-1D engines, developed internally by SpaceX, power the rocket’s first stage during the early phase of its flight. After takeoff from SLC-40, the missile will roll and tilt on a northeasterly course to align with its target trajectory. About 70 seconds into the flight, it will pass through Max-Q, the area of ​​maximum dynamic pressure, and go supersonic about the same time.

The first stage that will power Sunday’s mission is booster B1061-9. A veteran of eight previous launches, it first flew in November 2020 and has flown one of the most eclectic collections of missions for any Falcon 9 booster. The first two missions were devoted to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, supporting the program’s first operational crew rotation flights to the International Space Station by boosting Crew Dragons Resistance and Attempt in orbit around the earth on their respective Crew-1 and Crew-2 missions.

The booster’s first unmanned launch took place in June 2021 when it helped deploy the SXM-8 communications satellite to SiriusXM before flying a Cargo Dragon mission, CRS-23, in August. B1061’s fifth launch deployed NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) last Dec. Since then, the booster has made a Starlink launch – Group 4-7 in February – and has flown the two most recent multi-charge Transporter missions in April and May.

B1061 launches at previous launch, Transporter-5, in May Julia Bergeron for NSF

B1061-9 will power Sunday’s mission for about the first two minutes and 31 seconds of flight before the engines shut down: an event referred to as Main Engine Cutoff, or MECO. The phase separation occurs approximately four seconds later, with Falcon’s second stage carrying the charges toward Earth orbit as the B1061-9 begins its return to Earth. The second stage fires its single Merlin Vacuum (MVac) motor, a vacuum-optimized version of the Merlin-1D, approximately eight seconds after the stage.

The two halves of the fairing fall off the rocket at T+ for two minutes 54 seconds, having completed their task of protecting the payload as it climbs through the atmosphere. Upon return, each half of the fairing will deploy a parachute as it descends into the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX’s salvage boats will pick them up and return them to shore for future reuse.

The second phase completes a series of three burns before deploying the Globalstar charge on T+ for one hour, 53 minutes, and 21 seconds. If unannounced rideshare payloads are deployed during Sunday’s mission, it’s not clear whether they would separate before or after Globalstar.

As the second phase continues toward orbit to fulfill the primary objectives of Sunday’s mission, B1061-9 returns to Earth. After phase separation, it will reorient and deploy the lattice fins that will help provide guidance as it falls back through the atmosphere. With the drone ship Just read the instructions positioned downrange to receive it, no boostback burn is needed on this mission, so it just needs to burn and land on this flight.

(Photo Caption: B1061 returns to Port Canaveral on board Read instructions after Transporter-4 mission)

The entrance burn helps to reduce the heating on the stage as it re-enters the atmosphere, using three of the Merlin-1D motors. Shortly before landing, the center engine will re-ignite for the landing fire, slowing B1069-9 to a soft landing on the deck of Just Read The Instructions.

Sunday’s launch will be the third Falcon 9 mission in a 36-hour space, using all three of SpaceX’s launch pads. The trio of launches began a Starlink mission from Falcon’s other east coast launch pad: Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, at 12:09 EDT (16:09 UTC) on Friday. This was followed on Saturday by the launch of the German SARah-1 radar imaging satellite from Vandenberg Space Force Base on the west coast. The SARah-1 launch got underway at 07:19 PDT (14:19 UTC), less than 15 hours before the Globalstar mission.

(Main image: A Falcon 9 sits at SLC-40 before launching the Turksat-5A mission in January 2021. Credit: Stephen Marr for NSF)


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