SpaceX launches a pair of Intelsat satellites on expendable Falcon 9

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TAMPA, Fla. — SpaceX successfully launched a second pair of C-band replacement satellites for Intelsat over the weekend on the final flight of a frequently used Falcon 9 booster.

A Falcon 9 carrying Galaxy 31 and Galaxy 32 lifted off Nov. 12 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:06 a.m. Eastern after a four-day delay caused by Hurricane Nicole.

In what has become a rare occurrence, SpaceX did not attempt to recover the Falcon 9’s booster for reuse following its 14th mission — which tied a reuse record for the company.

Using an expendable version of Falcon 9 enabled SpaceX to pack more propellant into the rocket for sending the Maxar Technologies-built satellites to a supersynchronous transfer orbit, rather than an orbit with an apogee below geostationary orbit (GEO).

Jean-Luc Foreliger, Intelsat’s senior vice president of space systems, said the operator paid a premium for this mission because the satellites needed an extra boost toward their final GEO destinations.

It was the first time a stack of two satellites based on Maxar’s 1300-class platform had launched together. Foreliger said a supersynchronous orbit was needed to “achieve a good orbital lifetime, meaning greater than 15 years.”

While the Falcon 9’s booster will not be reused, SpaceX said it would recover the two halves of the rocket’s payload fairing for reuse following their fifth mission.

Galaxy replacements

Galaxy 31 and Galaxy 32 are performing as expected after separating from the rocket and deploying solar arrays, Maxar said.

Foreliger expects Galaxy 31 to start services in January, followed by Galaxy 32 by the end of February.

Galaxy 31 and Galaxy 32 are due to replace C-band broadcast coverage from Galaxy 23 and Galaxy 17, respectively, at 121 degrees west and 91 degrees west.

Galaxy 17 also provides Ku-band services, which the Maxar-built Intelsat 40e satellite is slated to replace following its SpaceX launch next year. 

Of the 11 satellites in Intelsat’s Galaxy fleet, seven are being replaced with new satellites to help the operator clear C-band spectrum for terrestrial 5G services in the United States.

Intelsat stands to get nearly $5 billion in total from the Federal Communications Commission for clearing spectrum by Dec. 5, 2023, although the company continues to face a legal challenge over its share of this windfall from rival operator SES.

SpaceX launched the first two satellites under Intelsat’s spectrum clearing plan Oct. 8: Northrop Grumman-built Galaxy 33 and Galaxy 34.

Galaxy 33 recently entered services, Foreliger said, and Galaxy 34 is finishing up in-orbit tests.

Maxar is building the remaining five C-band replacement satellites for Intelsat.

Arianespace is due to deploy a pair before the end of this year, and SpaceX is slated to launch Intelsat’s final C-band replacement satellite in June.

Foreliger said this fifth satellite, Intelsat 37, will ride on a dedicated Falcon 9 rocket with a reusable booster.