SES Betting on SpaceX, Falcon 9 Upgrade as Debut Approaches

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES on Sept. 14 said it is now confident that launch-service provider SpaceX will complete its Falcon 9 failure review, implement corrective measures and qualify its new-version Falcon 9 Upgrade all in time for a launch before the end of the year.

The company also said it is adding what it referred to as “a kind of USB port” to the SES-16/GovSat satellite, under construction by Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, and scheduled for launch in the first half of 2017.

The port will be the support structure for an unidentified hosted payload to be launched on a future SES satellite and then released in the vicinity of SES-16. The 200-kilogram, 500-watt payload then will travel to SES-16 and attach itself.

Martin Halliwell SES
Martin Haliwell. Credit: SES

SES Chief Technical Officer Martin Halliwell acknowledged that SpaceX had a lot on its plate for the next mission, which SpaceX has referred to as a “return to flight” but is much more than that given the multiple changes it is making to the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket to give it more power.

But Halliwell, long a supporter of Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, said his SES team has had enough access to the Falcon 9 failure review to assume a return to flight carrying the SES 9 satellite before the end of the year, but no earlier than Nov. 17.

“Frankly, I don’t think they could have done any better in terms of giving us access to the failure review, and we’ve got some experience with launch-failure reviews,” Halliwell said, referring to SES participation in past failure investigations relating to Russia’s Proton rocket and the European Ariane 5.

In a briefing here during the World Satellite Business Week, organized by the Euroconsult space industry consultancy, Halliwell said SpaceX has already tested individually the upgraded Merlin engines that will power the Falcon 9 upgrade, designed to deliver around 30 percent more lifting power to the rocket.

A 15-second test firing of the entire nine-engine first stage, which uses a denser fuel configuration to help add power, was scheduled to occur within a week.

The added power can be used to carry heavier payloads into orbit and, importantly for SpaceX’s strategy, to preserve enough residual fuel after the separation of a 5,000-kilogram telecommunications satellite to allow the Falcon 9 first stage to attempt a landing on the SpaceX offshore barge, or drone ship, for later reuse.

Halliwell said SES recently reiterated to SpaceX that the fleet operator would like to be the “the first satellite operator to use the same rocket twice to get to orbit,” Halliwell said, meaning to reuse a first stage that had already launched an SES satellite.

SpaceX has said it will attempt a barge landing of the first stage used for the SES-9 launch, the first such attempt following a launch to geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most telecommunications satellites.

Past attempts to land the Falcon 9 first stage on the barge, following launches of low-orbiting payloads, have been unsuccessful.

SES has five SpaceX missions under contract including the SES-9, plus two missions aboard the Ariane 5.

The Falcon 9 Upgrade involves changes throughout the rocket with the exception of the payload fairing and is not just a slightly modified Octaweb first-stage motor configuration and the increased thrust of the Merlin 1D engines.

The first stage landing legs have been upgraded and the first stage structure enhanced. The grid fins, to help guide the first stage to landing, sport a new design. The interstage structure is longer, the second stage Merlin Vacuum engine’s thrust is increased, its nozzle lengthened and the overall length of the second stage is increased.

Minor touchups for the same basic vehicle? Hardly, and Halliwell conceded that some insurance underwriters have asked questions about it. SES typically insures its launches to cover the cost of the rocket and the satellite.

But here too, he said, SES’s technical expertise is recognized among insurers and he expects no trouble with them once SES has decided that SpaceX has retired the major risks in the rocket’s development.

“It’s the insurers who ask us our opinion,” Halliwell said. “They have understandable questions and their main one to us is: ‘Would you launch this without insurance?’ We have said that, if it came to that, we would.”