SpaceX notches 15th landing after launching overdue Formosat-5

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WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launched a long-delayed remote sensing satellite for the government of Taiwan Aug. 24, executing another first stage landing in the process.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 2:51 p.m. Eastern, at the beginning of a 42-minute launch window. SpaceX reported no technical issues during the countdown, and foggy conditions at the launch site earlier in the morning partially cleared by launch time.

The rocket’s only payload, the Formosat-5 remote sensing satellite, separated from the upper stage a little more than 11 minutes after launch. The satellite was deployed into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 720 kilometers. SpaceX, during the launch webcast, declared the launch a success.

Formosat-5 was built by Taiwan’s space agency, the National Space Organization, known by the acronym NSPO. The 450-kilogram spacecraft was the first such satellite built domestically by Taiwan, and succeeds Formosat-2, retired a year ago. The spacecraft carries cameras capable of producing panchromatic images at a resolution of two meters and color images at a resolution of four meters. It also carries an ionospheric science instrument developed by a Taiwanese university.

NSPO awarded the launch contract for Formosat-5 to SpaceX in 2010, at the time intending to launch the spacecraft on SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 1 rocket. SpaceX later discontinued the Falcon 1, moving Formosat-5 to a larger Falcon 9 vehicle. Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but NSPO is widely understood to be paying far less than the Falcon 9 list price of more than $60 million for this launch.

At the time of the contract, SpaceX expected to launch Formosat-5 by early 2014. The change in launch vehicles and delays in SpaceX’s launch schedules, including those caused by two Falcon 9 failures in 2015 and 2016, significantly delayed the launch.

SpaceX previously planned to fly a secondary payload, the Sherpa bus from Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, which would have deployed nearly 90 small satellites after separating from the Falcon 9 upper stage. However, Spaceflight announced in March that it had decided to find alternative rides for those secondary payloads because of “significant” delays it expected in the Formosat-5 launch.

The launch also features another landing of the Falcon 9 first stage, in this case on a droneship called “Just Read the Instructions” in the Pacific Ocean. This was the 15th successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage in 40 liftoffs, and the ninth to land on a ship.

The launch was the 12th Falcon 9 mission of 2017, and the second in 10 days, after the launch of a Dragon cargo spacecraft Aug. 14 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The next Falcon 9 launch, of the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane, is planned for early September from Florida.