PARIS — SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on May 6 successfully placed Sky Perfect JSat’s JCSat-14 commercial telecommunications satellite into transfer orbit, with the rocket’s first stage landing gracefully on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
JCSat-14 manufacturer SSL of Palo Alto, California, confirmed that the satellite was healthy in geostationary transfer orbit and sending signals. SSL declined to confirm whether the final launch mass had changed from previous estimates of around 4,700 kilograms.
It was the second consecutive drone-ship touchdown by the rocket’s first stage and was accomplished despite what SpaceX officials had said were particularly challenging conditions due to the velocity necessary for the launch. The previous successful drone-ship landing, performed in April, was done following a launch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule into low Earth orbit.
“This was a three engine landing burn, so triple deceleration of last flight,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a Twitter post after the landing. “That’s important to minimize gravity losses.”
Before the launch, Musk had sought to lower expectations for the landing. “Rocket reentry is a lot faster and hotter than last time, so odds of making it are maybe even, but we should learn a lot either way,” he said.
As was the case with previous SpaceX webcasts, viewers might be forgiven if they thought the main event was the landing of the first stage, with the successful deployment of the customer’s satellite a less-interesting sideshow. The release of the tension that accompanies most launches in this case occurred with the landing, while the Falcon 9 second stage was still maneuvering to its geostationary-transfer-orbit satellite-drop-off point.
It would be interesting to track the number of viewers of the SpaceX webcast to determine how sharp a fall-off occurred after the striking video of the drone-ship landing, especially given that the launch occurred at 1:21 a.m. Eastern Time in the United States. It also would have been interesting to see the reaction of the JSat delegation attending the launch and watching the webcast.
The launch, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, was SpaceX’s fourth in 2016, a year when the Hawthorne, California-based company has said it was targeting 18 missions in total, implying a launch cadence that the company has long said was its goal, but which it has not achieved.
The successful recovery of the first stage brings to three the number of recovered Falcon 9 stages. “May need to increase size of rocket storage hangar,” Musk tweeted in delight. The company has said that pending inspection and retest of the returned stages it would be ready to reuse one as soon as this summer.
During the webcast, SpaceX said it had not yet test-fired the first stage that was recovered in April but would do so shortly, either in Florida or at SpaceX’s facility in Texas.
JCSat-14 will operate from 154 degrees east, where it will replace JSat’s JCSat-2A, which was launched in 2002 and formerly called JCSat-8.
Similarly, JCSat-14 will now be renamed JCSat-2B. Its 26 C-band and 18 Ku-band transponders will deliver television and telecommunications services in Asia, Russia, Oceana and the Pacific islands.
The Ku-band will also be used to deliver connectivity to maritime and aeronautical customers, and energy platforms, in the Asia-Pacific. It is designed to deliver 10 kilowatts of power to its payload at the end of its 15-year operational life.