Twice-Flown SpaceX Rocket Launches Huge Communications Satellite

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX successfully launched its ninth space mission of the year today (Aug. 6), delivering an Israeli communications satellite into orbit.

Despite typical summer storms in the area, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 here at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:23 p.m. EDT (2323 GMT), carrying skyward Amos-17, a communications satellite owned by the Israeli company Spacecom. 

The California-based private spaceflight company originally aimed for a launch on Saturday (Aug. 3) but had to reevaluate its plans after preflight testing on Thursday (Aug. 1) indicated a valve issue on the Falcon 9. SpaceX opted to postpone the launch, replace the suspect valve and perform a second round of checks on the booster.

Related: Reusable Rocket Launch Systems: How They Work (Infographic)

Static-fire tests are a standard part of prelaunch testing that SpaceX conducts before each mission. During such tests, the rocket's first stage is held down and its engines are briefly fired to show that the booster's systems are working as expected prior to launch.

The Amos-17 mission is the first time a Falcon 9 rocket has flown a payload for Spacecom following the loss of its Amos-6 satellite on Sept. 1, 2016. On that day, SpaceX was in the process of conducting a prelaunch static-fire test when the rocket exploded. At the time, SpaceX performed its static-fire tests with the payload attached to the rocket, a practice the company has since stopped. 

Spacecom says that the Amos-17 satellite will provide C-band, Ku-band and Ka-band communications services over Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The satellite is designed to last 20 years and costs an estimated $250 million, which includes the spacecraft, launch services and insurance. 

The first-stage booster used for this mission, dubbed 1047.3 (an internal identifier by SpaceX), is a veteran member of the Falcon 9 fleet, having flown twice before. First launched in July 2018, it carried the Telstar 19 Vantage satellite.Then, in November 2018, the booster helped loft Qatar's Es'hail 2 communications satellite into orbit.

The sooty, stripped-down Falcon 9 first stage launched this evening without its iconic grid fins and landing legs, for this time it would not be recovered.

After pushing Amos-17 skyward, B1047.3 ended its service by splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. The vehicle needed every drop of its fuel to ensure that the heavy Amos-17 satellite — weighing in at 14,330 lbs. (6,500 kilograms) when fully fueled — is able to reach the highest possible orbit. So, there was not enough fuel for the booster to land itself back at the Cape, or out at sea on a SpaceX drone ship.

However, SpaceX is still perfecting another hallmark of its reusability efforts: recycling pieces of the payload fairing (also called the rocket's nose cone). The company dispatched its fleet of recovery vessels a few days prior to launch, ensuring that a net-equipped boat called GO Ms. Tree would be in position to (hopefully) catch another fairing as it parachuted back to Earth. 

Payload fairings are designed to protect satellites during launch. SpaceX fairings come in two halves, which are jettisoned once their rocket reaches space. Together, the two pieces cost about $6 million — a hefty chunk of the rocket's overall cost. (It currently costs a minimum of $90 million to book a Falcon Heavy launch and $62 million for SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.)

When fairings fall back to Earth, they're typically reduced to scrap metal if they slam into the water or are exposed to briny seawater. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly stressed the corrosive nature of salt water, explaining that the company wants to reduce costs by cutting down on the refurbishments that each fairing half goes through after landing in the ocean. And that's where GO Ms. Tree comes in.

Related: SpaceX's Fairing-Catching Boat in Photos

In June, during the company's latest Falcon Heavy launch, SpaceX pulled off its first midair catch, a long-sought rocket-reusability milestone. 

Acting as a giant catcher's mitt, GO Ms. Tree (formerly known as Mr. Steven) caught the powerful rocket's falling payload fairing off the Florida coast on June 25. This was a first for the speedy boat, which had come close on multiple occasions but had never managed to seal the deal.

SpaceX already reuses its first-stage rocket boosters, but it wants to expand its recycling efforts to include the fairings, further reducing launch costs. To that end, the California-based aerospace company equips both fairing halves with parachutes and small steering thrusters, to navigate themselves back to Earth and into GO Ms. Tree's net.

SpaceX has spent nearly two years testing the net-ship technique during select launches as well as performing numerous drop tests. GO Ms. Tree went through many design changes, including three different sets of arms and four nets, before the winning combination was found.

And that work paid off again today: About an hour after liftoff, Musk announced via Twitter that GO Ms. Tree succeeded in snagging a falling fairing half.

At an adjacent launch pad, just 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) away, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket awaits its own scheduled liftoff on Thursday (Aug. 8).

The Atlas V is equipped with five strap-on solid rocket motors designed to help lift the massive payload on board — the fifth Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite (AEHF-5). Built by Lockheed Martin, the communications satellite will be used by the U.S. military and other government agencies for secure voice, video and data communications. 

Before the Falcon 9 could get Amos-17 off the ground today, SpaceX needed approval from the Air Force's Eastern Range. 

During a media teleconference on Monday (Aug. 5) for the upcoming AEHF mission, Air Force officials discussed the Cape's two planned launches this week. 

Air Force officials signed off on a plan to launch the Falcon 9 and Atlas V rockets 35 hours apart. The rapid-fire launch schedule began when the Falcon 9 took to the skies and will end early Thursday morning with the Atlas V's planned 5:44 a.m. EDT (0944 GMT) liftoff. 

With more and more launch providers flocking to set up shop at the Cape, the Air Force has been streamlining its processes and updating infrastructure to be in a better position to support more launches with less downtime in between. 

Related: Elon Musk Says SpaceX Will Reuse a Rocket Within 24 Hours in 2019

One key feature that helps enable faster turnaround times is the advent of an autonomous self-destruct mechanism on rockets, which cuts the workload for each launch. 

The onboard safety system cuts out the need for military officers to manually send signals to self-destruct errant boosters in case of an emergency and instead relies on onboard computers. The switch will also save millions of dollars in infrastructure costs as old, outdated systems are updated. 

(Range safety teams now use GPS data instead of relying on ground-based radar systems.) 

With companies like SpaceX aiming to launch multiple times in a 24-hour period, the Air Force is also working to ensure that it can support multiple launches on the same day. 

"We would like to get to the point where we could launch [multiple vehicles] in 24 hours," officials said. 

Ultimately, meeting this goal will still depend on which launch complexes the vehicles were launched from and what range resources were needed. But Air Force officials expressed optimism that same-day launches are on the horizon.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 8:25 p.m. EDT with news of the successful payload-fairing catch by GO Ms. Tree.

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.