Tentative SpaceX Schedule Shaping Up, SpX-8 In February

Tentative SpaceX Schedule Shaping Up, SpX-8 In February

SpaceX will launch four Falcon 9 missions from two coasts in two months if tentative plans coming into focus today prove out.   It all begins with a December 16 static fire test of the rocket for the ORBCOMM launch.  If that goes well, ORBCOMM’s satellites will launch around December 19, followed by SES-9 and Jason-3 in mid-January, and SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) in February.

SpaceX and ORBCOMM announced the plans for the launch of 11 ORBCOMM OG-2 satellites yesterday.  Their destination is low Earth orbit (LEO).  SES also announced yesterday that its SES-9 communications satellite arrived at Cape Canveral for launch in “mid-January.”  It is headed to geostationary orbit.

Today, NASA and NOAA announced that the much-delayed Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite is now scheduled for launch on January 17, 2016 at 10:42 am Pacific Time (1:42 pm Eastern) from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  It will be placed into a high inclination (66.05 degree) orbit.  Its launch had been scheduled for July 22, 2015, but was delayed due to thruster contamination and then by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 failure on June 28. 

SpaceX is recovering from that failure, which destroyed a Dragon cargo capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) launched as part of the company’s Commercial Resuppply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  It was SpaceX’s seventh operational CRS launch, SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.  A failed strut in
the Falcon 9 upper stage is thought to be the cause. 

NASA’s Stephanie Schierholz told SpacePolicyOnline.com via email this afternoon that NASA is working toward a “no earlier than” (NET) February 2016 date for the next SpaceX cargo mission to ISS.   ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said last week that January 8 was the NET date, but he conveyed that it was dependent on a number of factors.  One is NASA’s desire to conduct a spacewalk to replace a failed part on the ISS exterior.  January 12-18 is an opportune time to do that, Schierholz said, and “[w]orking toward a February launch date for [SpaceX] CRS-8 affords both NASA and SpaceX important opportunities in preparation for launch.”

The NASA statement adds that “We’re excited for this historic [SpX-8] mission to bring the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which was developed under a public private partnership, to the ISS as a commercial vehicle and continue paving exciting new paths of innovation and cooperation for both NASA and the space industry.”

SpaceX is
proceeding cautiously in its return-to-flight strategy in that it chose the
ORBCOMM launch to go first, instead of SES.  The ORBCOMM satellites need to go only to low Earth orbit, which does not require a
second firing of the second stage as would be needed to reach geostationary orbit.   On the other hand, these next four launches present a challenging cadence that will test the rocket (which is being upgraded at the same time) in several regimes:  three launches from Cape Canaveral and one from Vandenberg, placing satellites into low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit, and two different high-inclination orbits (66.05 degrees for Jason-3 and 51.6 degrees for the ISS cargo mission), all in about two months.  The company additionally plans to continue its attempts to return one or more of the Falcon 9 first stages to Earth to demonstrate reusability, perhaps landing back at Cape Canaveral if it can get the required approvals.

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