EDITOR’S NOTE: Watch our live streaming video of the Falcon 9 countdown and launch from Cape Canaveral with the first two O3b mPOWER broadband satellites for SES.
SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket at 5:48 p.m. EST (2221 GMT) Friday from Cape Canaveral on a mission to boost two high-power broadband satellites for SES’s O3b mPOWER network toward a unique equatorial orbit some 5,000 miles above Earth.
Flying due east from Florida’s Space Coast, the Falcon 9 rocket will place the first two O3b mPOWER satellites into orbit to join SES’s 20 first-generation O3b internet satellites launched from 2013 through 2019.
Forecasters from the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predict a greater than 90% probability of favorable weather for liftoff, with only a slight chance of thick clouds that might create a threat of lightning. The weather team expects good conditions in the Atlantic Ocean for landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage booster on SpaceX’s drone ship “A Shortfall of Gravitas” about 420 miles (670 kilometers) east of Cape Canaveral.
During Friday’s countdown, the Falcon 9 launcher will be filled with a million pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants in the final 35 minutes before liftoff.
After teams verify technical and weather parameters are all “green” for launch, the nine Merlin 1D main engines on the first stage booster will flash to life with the help of an ignition fluid called triethylaluminum/triethylborane, or TEA-TEB. Once the engines ramp up to full throttle, hydraulic clamps will open to release the Falcon 9 for its climb into space.
The nine main engines will produce 1.7 million pounds of thrust for about two-and-a-half minutes, propelling the Falcon 9 and and the two O3b mPOWER satellite into the upper atmosphere. Then the booster stage — tail number B1067 in SpaceX’s fleet — will shut down and separate from the Falcon 9’s upper stage.
The booster will extend titanium grid fins and pulse cold gas thrusters to orient itself for a tail-first entry back into the atmosphere, before reigniting its engines for a braking burn and a final landing burn, targeting a vertical descent to the drone ship holding position in the Atlantic Ocean.
A successful rocket landing on the drone ship will mark the completion of the booster’s eighth flight to space. The booster debuted June 3, 2021, with the launch of a Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station, and launched two astronaut crews into space on NASA’s Crew-3 and Crew-4 missions. It has also launched the Turksat 5B communications satellite, another space station resupply mission, and a batch of Starlink internet satellites. Most recently, the booster launched and landed Nov. 13 on a mission with Eutelsat’s Hotbird 13G television broadcasting satellite.
For the O3b mission, the Falcon 9’s upper stage will fire its engine three times to send the two Boeing-built broadband satellites into a higher orbit, closer to their final operating altitude about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) over the equator.
The first O3b mPOWER satellite will deploy from the rocket 1 hour and 53 minutes into the mission, followed separation of the second spacecraft 2 hours after liftoff. The satellites will unfurl their solar panels and switch on xenon-fueled thrusters to maneuver into their operational orbit, a process that will take until about April, according to SES, the Luxembourg-based company that owns the O3b network.
Two O3b mPOWER satellites owned by SES are enclosed inside the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing for liftoff Friday. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography
The two O3b spacecraft, when combined, weigh roughly 9,000 pounds (4,100 kilograms) in launch configuration, a Boeing official told Spaceflight Now.
The O3b mPOWER satellites will beam high-speed internet services around the world, providing “fiber-like” connectivity to users between 50 degrees north and south latitude, according to SES, the Luxembourg-based operator that owns the O3b fleet.
SES already has 20 O3b satellites in Medium Earth Orbit. They flew to space on Russian Soyuz rockets under a launch services contract with Arianepace.
The new O3b mPOWER satellites will operate in a similar Medium Earth Orbit, or MEO, over the equator as the original O3b satellites.
“SES’s O3b mPOWER system is a true gamechanger and will transform the way people think about connectivity,” said Ruy Pinto, chief technology officer at SES. “Delivering performance above all, O3b mPOWER will offer connectivity services to government organizations and enterprises based in the most remote regions. In times of natural disasters, when networks are disrupted, O3b mPOWER’s low-latency services can quickly restore critical communications networks.”
The original O3b satellites, built by Thales Alenia Space nearly a decade ago, had 10 user beams per spacecraft. The new O3b mPOWER satellites, built on Boeing’s 702 spacecraft platform, each have more than 4,000 beams that can be adjusted to focus bandwidth on high-demand areas.
SES has focused on developing broadband satellites for a MEO constellation constellation, which puts the relay stations closer to Earth than geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles over the planet. That reduces the latency, or lag, in internet signals compared to geostationary satellites. As few as three geostationary satellites could provide global coverage, but more satellites in MEO required to reach around the world.
But that number is still far fewer than the hundreds or thousands of internet satellites companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are launching into low Earth orbit. Satellites flying less than 1,000 miles above Earth reduce latency even further than MEO satellites, but many more spacecraft are needed for global coverage.
Boeing is contracted to build 11 O3b mPOWER satellites. More O3b mPOWER payloads are scheduled to launch on Falcon 9 rockets in 2023.
O3b stands for “Other 3 Billion” in recognition of the billions of people without access to reliable internet service.
“SES approached us with a vision to create global equity, by providing people with high-speed connectivity where it wasn’t economically or physically feasible to build fiber infrastructure,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president of space and launch at Boeing. “We partnered to create a super computer constellation in space to meet that goal, and we can’t wait to see what SES does as the 702X platform’s first user.”
ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1067.8)
PAYLOAD: O3b mPOWER 1 & 2
LAUNCH SITE: SLC-40, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida
LAUNCH DATE: Dec. 16, 2022
LAUNCH TIME: 4:21-5:48 p.m. EST (2121-2248 GMT)
WEATHER FORECAST: Greater than 90% chance of good weather
BOOSTER RECOVERY: “A Shortfall of Gravitas” drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean
LAUNCH AZIMUTH: East
TARGET ORBIT: Medium Earth Orbit transfer
- 191st launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
- 200th launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
- 8th launch of Falcon 9 booster B1067
- 163rd Falcon 9 launch from Florida’s Space Coast
- 106th Falcon 9 launch from pad 40
- 161st launch overall from pad 40
- 131st flight of a reused Falcon 9 booster
- 8th SpaceX launch for SES
- 57th Falcon 9 launch of 2022
- 58th launch by SpaceX in 2022
- 55th orbital launch attempt based out of Cape Canaveral in 2022