As SpaceX competes for the right to launch future US military satellites, an environmental assessment by the Federal Aviation Administration has revealed details of the company’s plans for national security missions and future operations of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
SpaceX is one of four companies competing for two available contracts under Phase 2 of the Department of Defense’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program. NSSL, which was formerly the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, aims to provide the US military with assured access to space by maintaining a pair of fully-certified launch vehicles able to carry vital national security payloads into orbit. Phase 2 of the program aims to find successors to United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, developed under the original EELV program which began in the 1990s.
With the second phase of the program, the DoD aims to bring on line newer rockets, incorporating more modern technologies and reducing reliance on parts built-in “non-allied” nations – particularly the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine that powers Atlas V. The request for proposals outlines a number of baseline missions that the rockets will need to be able to perform, detailing orbital parameters and the required payload mass and dimensional envelope. The latter is significant because it determines how large a rocket’s payload fairing must be in order to enclose the satellite.
NSSL’s largest payloads, designated category C, require an extended fairing with a diameter of at least five meters (16.4 feet). A candidate rocket for NSSL Phase 2 must be able to place a 17,000 kilogram (37,500 lb) satellite of this class into an 830 kilometer (516-mile, 448-nautical mile) sun-synchronous orbit, or a 6,600 kilogram (14,600 lb) payload directly into geostationary orbit.
Two smaller classes – categories A and B – can be accommodated within a four-meter (13.1-foot) fairing and a shorter five-meter fairing respectively. A wider array of mission profiles are required for these types of payloads, including moderately-inclined and sun-synchronous low Earth orbits, highly elliptical Molniya orbits, geosynchronous transfer orbit and direct insertion to geostationary orbit. Delivery of this class of payloads to the medium Earth orbit used by GPS navigation satellites – via both direct-insertion and a transfer orbit – is also required.
Delta IV Heavy launches the NROL-71 mission in 2019, believed to be a KH-11 satellite – via Jack Beyer for NSF
The category C requirement is most likely driven by two specific types of classified National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite – the KH-11 Crystal imaging satellite and the Orion signals intelligence spacecraft – which are currently launched by the Delta IV Heavy rocket. KH-11 is a series of very large imaging satellite typically operated in sun-synchronous orbit, capturing high-resolution photos which are then beamed back to Earth for analysis. Orion satellites are stationed in geostationary orbit where they use massive antennae to eavesdrop on radio transmissions.
SpaceX is bidding its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets for the NSSL Phase 2 contract. Working with the US military is nothing new for SpaceX – indeed the company’s first launch in March 2006 carried the FalconSAT-2 spacecraft for the US Air Force Academy. That mission was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as an opportunity to evaluate the Falcon 1 rocket for future uses.
Falcon 1 served as a pathfinder for SpaceX, leading to the development of the much larger Falcon 9, which first flew in June 2010 and has since made eighty orbital launches. A series of upgrades over its time in service have significantly increased Falcon’s payload capacity, which has allowed it to compete with the established EELV-class rockets.
SpaceX conducted its first major mission for the DoD in May 2017, when a Falcon 9 carried out the NROL-76 launch and deployed the USA-276 satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. Four months later another Falcon 9 carried the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane aloft on its fifth mission – the previous four flights having been boosted by the Atlas V.
Falcon 9 launches the X-37B OTV-5 mission in 2017 – via SpaceX
In January 2018 another Falcon 9 carried the secret Zuma satellite – a government spacecraft launched under a commercial contract – into orbit. Falcon 9 performed flawlessly – as it has on all but two of its launches to date – however, the customer-supplied separation mechanism failed to operate, resulting in the loss of the spacecraft. Another military launch came at the end of 2018, with Falcon 9 carrying the first GPS Block III spacecraft into orbit.
The two-stage Falcon 9 incorporates a reusable first stage or “core”, which returns to Earth through a powered landing once it has boosted the rocket’s second stage and payload on their way to orbit. Depending on the target orbit and mass of its payload, the first stage can either return to a landing pad close to the launch site or touch down aboard an Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) downrange. By investing in reusable rockets, SpaceX aims to drive down the cost of launches.
The larger Falcon Heavy rocket first flew in February 2018 and has since made two more launches. By attaching two additional cores as side boosters to a central Falcon 9 stack, SpaceX has developed the most powerful rocket currently in service worldwide. If flown in a fully-expendable configuration, SpaceX claim the rocket could put a 63,800 kilogram (140,660 lb) payload into low Earth orbit or a 26,700 kilogram (58,860 lb) payload to geostationary transfer. Alternatively, the three cores can be recovered – with the side boosters returning to the launch site and the center core using the ASDS.
SpaceX already has on its books a number of upcoming military launches that were competitively-sourced. These include further GPS Block III satellites and a pair of NRO missions scheduled for 2021. Two Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) missions are slated to be flown by Falcon Heavy.
Falcon Heavy launches on the STP-2 mission – photo from Brady Kenniston for NSF
NSSL Phase 2 presents several challenges for SpaceX, and the FAA’s environmental assessment reveals some clues about how the company plans to meet these, as well as its plans for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy over the next few years.
The report, which describes aspects of SpaceX’s launch operations in detail, forms part of a request to make modifications to its operations and launch facilities at Cape Canaveral and the adjacent Kennedy Space Center. It supersedes similar reports made at the time SpaceX first leased these facilities, as well as supplemental reports made since.
SpaceX currently operates two launch pads on Florida’s Space Coast: Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center. SLC-40 is a former Titan launch complex, leased from the US Air Force in 2007 and rebuilt for Falcon 9.
The pad was renovated in 2017 after suffering damage when a Falcon 9 booster exploded during pre-launch testing in September 2016. Rockets are prepared for launch in a hangar at the perimeter of the launch complex, with integration taking place in a horizontal configuration. Before liftoff, Falcon rolls out and is erected using a Transporter-Erector, known as the Strongback. A similar arrangement is used at Launch Complex 39A, with the hangar located at the foot of the pad’s launch ramp.
LC-39A is the historic launch pad from which most of the Apollo lunar missions – including Apollo 11 – lifted off, which was also later used by the Space Shuttle. SpaceX leased the facility from NASA in 2014 with its first Falcon 9 launch occurring in February 2017. LC-39A is the only pad which can accommodate Falcon Heavy as well as Falcon 9, and also incorporates a crew access arm – mounted on the Fixed Service Structure left over from the Space Shuttle era – allowing crewed missions with the Dragon v2 spacecraft to use the complex in the near future.
It is at LC-39A that SpaceX will make one of their most visible changes for NSSL, with the construction of a new mobile service tower (MST). This will help meet one of the requirements of the contract – that certain payloads must be kept in a vertical orientation when they are mated to the launch vehicle. Currently, all integration takes place while the rocket is horizontal, which could expose particularly sensitive satellites to loads they are not designed to endure, during assembly or when the rocket is raised to vertical.
Slide from the Assessment report.
Instead of abandoning horizontal integration the tower will allow SpaceX to adopt a hybrid approach, with the first and second stages – along with boosters for Falcon Heavy launches – being mated in the hangar. Falcon 9 would then be moved into its launch position and raised to the vertical before the MST is used to attach the payload and its protective fairing. This integration strategy is similar to one used by Arianespace for Soyuz launches from its spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
Standing 86.6 meters (284 feet) high, the Mobile Service Tower will contain eleven levels. The steel structure will be mounted on rails, with four transport wheel assemblies moving it the 40 meters (130 feet) between its integration and launch positions. Preliminary designs show that the tower will retain the futuristic aesthetic that SpaceX has chosen for its other facilities, in contrast to the more functional-looking service towers used at other launch pads.
Construction of the MST will be subject to NASA’s approval, as the owner of Launch Complex 39. If built the tower can also be used for NASA and commercial payloads that require vertical integration with their launch vehicle. It will be the first permanent mobile service tower built at LC-39 – during the Space Shuttle era, a Rotating Service Structure (RSS) supported by the pad’s Fixed Service Structure (FSS) provided access to the orbiter’s payload bay, while during the Apollo program a free-standing mobile service structure could be moved into position by a Crawler-Transporter.
Slide from the Assessment report.
Another modification will be the introduction of a larger fairing for the Falcon Heavy, allowing it to carry the Category C payloads required by NSSL. Currently, both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy use the same composite fairing – measuring 5.2 meters (17 feet) in diameter and 13.1 meters (43.0 feet) in length. This is not long enough for the huge NRO spacecraft, so the new fairing – likely a stretched version – will be needed if SpaceX rockets are chosen to carry these payloads.
SpaceX is competing against United Launch Alliance (ULA), Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman for one of the two available NSSL contracts. It is the only company bidding a rocket that has already flown – with ULA developing its Vulcan rocket for the program. Blue Origin is proposing its New Glenn launcher, while Northrop Grumman has inherited the OmegA rocket which Orbital ATK had begun development on prior to the companies’ merger. All of these rockets are currently slated to make maiden flights no earlier than next year.
All four NSSL competitors envision using Cape Canaveral as their main launch site. While SpaceX will continue to use SLC-40 and LC-39A, Northrop Grumman has secured an agreement to share Launch Complex 39B with NASA’s Space Launch System.
OmegA will leverage parts of the remaining Space Shuttle launch infrastructure, including a Mobile Launch Platform (MLP-3) and High Bay 2 of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). ULA’s Vulcan will fly from Space Launch Complex 41, which the company already uses for its Atlas V rocket, a workhorse of the first round of the NSSL program. Blue Origin is constructing a new pad at Space Launch Complex 36, a former Atlas-Centaur launch facility which was last used in 2005 when the Atlas III was retired.
ULA Vulcan Rocket
As well as the modifications to LC-39A, the environmental assessment for SpaceX covers planned changes in the frequency of the company’s launches from Cape Canaveral as well as a new flight profile for Falcon launches from the Cape.
When the first assessment for SLC-40 was made in 2007, SpaceX envisioned making up to twelve launches per year, using Falcon 9 and the smaller Falcon 1. Instead, Falcon 1 was retired and all launches from Florida have used Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles – with eleven missions last year down from a peak of fifteen in 2018.
With a potential military contract, crew and cargo Dragon missions for NASA and the deployment of the Starlink communications constellation, in addition to regular commercial and NASA launches, SpaceX envisions a sharp rise in the number of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy missions, beginning this year.
Up to 38 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy missions could be flown from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center by the end of 2020, with up to 64 in 2021 and 2022 and 70 in following years. The majority of these would be flown from SLC-40, with LC-39A being used for up to ten Falcon Heavy launches per year and up to ten Falcon 9 launches – including Crew Dragon and any payloads requiring vertical integration.
Falcon 9 with the IFA Crew Dragon – photo by Nathan Barker for NSF
Opening a new launch corridor to the southeast will expand the range of missions that can be flown from the Cape. Currently, sites on the West Coast, such as Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, are used for launches into near-polar orbits as the geography allows rockets to reach these orbits without overflying land or having to make significant maneuvers to avoid doing so. It is generally less efficient to launch polar-orbit missions from the East coast, as a rocket has to waste fuel performing a dog-leg maneuver to avoid flying over populated areas, reducing the amount of payload it can carry.
Falcon 9’s payload capacity has evolved to a point at which it can absorb this performance hit, so SpaceX has opted to concentrate operations in Florida and start flying polar launches from both coasts.
The SAOCOM-1B mission for Argentina, scheduled at the end of March, is currently expected to be the first launch to use this trajectory. It will be the first polar launch from Cape Canaveral since ESSA-2, an early weather satellite, which was boosted to sun-synchronous orbit in February 1966 by a Delta-E rocket. Falcon 9’s first stage will perform a return-to-launch-site during this mission, returning to Landing Zone 1 at the Cape.