Updated: Sep 12, 2018
This past weekend SpaceX battled to get it’s latest launch off the ground amid ongoing thunderstorms and the looming threat of an approaching hurricane.
SpaceX was commissioned by Canadian communications company, Telesat, to deliver the Telstar 18 Vantage satellite to a geostationary orbit. This launch in particular had been plagued with issues from the very beginning. The launch date enountered many slips resulting in a launch date that was about two weeks later than originally planned. Even on the day of launch there was only a 60% chance of favorable weather conditions as determined by the 45th Weather Squadron of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base. The main concern for launch violations was high rising clouds within the launch range. There was also the fact that the drone ship used by SpaceX to capture their reusable first stage booster, Of Course I Still Love You, was facing a run in with now powerful hurricane Florence. The day of launch wasn’t so much a concern for the drone ship as what the weather would be like 2 or 3 days later once they had begun procedures to secure the booster and return it to Port Canaveral in Florida.
Onlookers were nervous that if the launch didn’t occur at the scheduled time of 11:28 p.m. ET Saturday, September 8th it would face yet another launch date slip after already having been moved two weeks. This is exactly what happened unfortunately. The launch date was announced by Spacex had slipped again. Luckily, the slip was only 24 hours and targeted launch for 11:28 p.m. ET Sunday, September 9th. However, this meant the SpaceX fleet team fo recovery vessels were inching ever closer to having to recover a stage 1 booster while dealing with the early effects of Hurricane Florence.
Many nervous conversations were had about what kind of hurricane contingency plan SpaceX had in plan should the drone ship have to evacuate the landing site. There were also many conversations about the weather conditions for launch which were quickly deteriorating late Sunday night at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the surrounding areas.
As our launch photographer was arriving at the viewing site there were thunderstorms building all around Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and surrounding areas. As time started to tick away towards the 11:28p.m. ET launch time the weather had significantly deteriorated and the launch pad SLC-40 was under a Phase 2 lightning hold. The weather conditions were so bad that media members at the launch site were instructed to remain inside their vehicles for safety purposes. The weather continued to be a concern and the launch time began to eat into the available 4 hour window. Launch was pushed to 11:30 p.m., then 11:45 p.m., then 12:00 a.m., then 12:30 a.m. and finally one last time to 12:45 a.m.
The available 4 hour launch window granted enough time to ride out the storms and wait for launch conditions that were just right. Luckily conditions at LC-40 did improve drastically. The lightning and rain ceased, the clouds dissipated, and all remnants moved further offshore into the Atlantic ocean. Everyone could finally breathe a sigh of relief that the launch would actually occur once SpaceX announced that propellant loading procedures had begun.
All pre-launch checks proceeded nominally and SpaceX was on track for an on time launch of the newly targeted time of 12:45 a.m. ET. Seven minutes prior to lift off the 9 Merlin engines, that the Falcon 9 booster is equipped with, initiated startup sequences and were preparing for liquid Oxygen fueling. 3 minutes later the arms holding the booster to the strongback support system began to release and prepare for the strongback to fully retract at the moment of liftoff. With 2 minutes to go the on board computers for Falcon 9 took over final countdown and performed the close-out commands and procedures to prepare the Falcon 9 for flight. With only seconds remaining in the countdown the final “go for launch” was given by the LD, or Launch Director. Everything looked good for launch and Of Course I still Love you was ready out in the Atlantic ocean to receive the the Falcon 9’s first stage booster once it fell with style back to Earth.
The clear, moonless sky allowed on lookers to view many important launch events including the initial Main Engine Cut Off, or MECO, followed rapidly by stage separation of the Falcon 9 first stage booster and the second stage engine used to propel the payload into orbit, and a brief period of the second engine stage start up and burn as far as 3 minutes into flight. At 8 minutes into flight the first stage booster landed safely on the drone ship, Of Course I still Love you. SpaceX was able to successfully deploy it’s second heaviest payload ever into geostationary orbit about 37 minutes after launch. This launch marked the 16th successful launch for SpaceX this calendar year and it’s 60th overall successful mission.
Recovery efforts to secure the Falcon 9 stage 1 booster were rapidly initiated by the SpaceX fleet crew members and the drone ship was able to begin its journey towards Port Canaveral about 8 hours later, Monday morning. Initially the fleet were traveling at a quick 7.9kn. Eventually the fleet slowed slightly to 7.3kn. At the time of publish the fleet has not yet made it back to Port Canaveral, but are steadily on the way. It seems that SpaceX has once again been able to pull off a launch and booster recovery just in the nick of time to evade a dangerous hurricane. Of Course I Still Love you, the Falcon 9 booster, and accompanying fleet are expected to arrive in port safely sometime before mid-day Wednesday.