A success for the launch of the LightSail 2 solar sail and many satellites on SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket blasting off in its Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission (Photo NASA/Joel Kowsky)
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket blasting off in its Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission (Photo NASA/Joel Kowsky)

A few hours ago SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral on a mission involving the launch of various satellites in low and medium Earth orbit. The most powerful rocket in business launched satellites on behalf of NASA, the US Air Force and other entities, incuding CubeSat-class nanosatellites built by students. The mission required four burns for the Falcon Heavy rocket’s upper stage to place them in the various orbits required. The mass of the payloads to be taken into orbit was relatively small – around 3,700 kg – but the second stage needed a lot of fuel to carry out all the maneuvers required in this mission, therefore the initial thrust of the Falcon Heavy was needed.

The Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission also includes LightSail 2, the new version of the solar sail developed by The Planetary Society. The first version, initially called LightSail A and then LightSail 1, was launched on May 20, 2015 and, despite some problems, the on-board system test conducted for a few weeks was considered a success.

LightSail 2 was built also based on the experience of that test and has greater ambitions. Inserted in a circular orbit at an altitude of about 720 kilometers, it aims to demonstrate the possibility of modifying that orbit with the solar sail.

Among NASA’s technologies aboard the Falcon Heavy rocket there was Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC), a much smaller mercury-ion atomic clock that uses much less power than the Deep Space Network (DSN) ones. The purpose of the DSAC is to determine in real time the position in space and time of a spaceship in deep space also using a signal from the Earth.

Another technology to be tested, developed together with the US Air Force, is the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM). It’s an “green” fuel alternative to the hydrazine commonly used in satellites for their thrusters. The hydroxylammonium nitrate (HAN) used as a new fuel, whose mixture with the oxidant is called AF-M315E, has been under development for years and offers various advantages over hydrazine: besides being much less toxic and therefore easier to handle, the new fuel offers a greater thrust and is denser, therefore there can be a higher amount in a spacecraft’s tanks.

For SpaceX it was a complex mission due to the number of satellites to be inserted in various orbits. It’s the first that involved the US Department of Defense and in particular the US Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). The US Air Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) certification is also at stake. For Elon Musk’s company it’s a matter of proving the ability to put in orbit cargoes that can be connected to national security as well as to the development of advanced technologies using a flight-proven rocket, given that the side boosters are the same ones used in the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first commercial mission.

Shortly after the launch, the side boosters regularly landed in the landing zones set up at Cape Canaveral. After a few minutes, the central first stage attempted to land on the “Of Course I Still Love You.” drone ship but this time splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. This landing was particularly difficult on the drone ship which for the occasion was 1,240 kilometers from the coast, much more distant than normal. One of the two halves of the fairing was caught in the recovery ship’s net, the other was later recovered after splashing down in the Ocean.

The primary mission, with the deployment of a number of satellites and LightSail 2, was a success. One of the doubts concerning the Falcon Heavy rocket was that paradoxically it’s too powerful to have a market since there are very few launches of heavy communications satellites and space probes to be sent into deep space. The spread of rideshare launches, especially if in different orbits, combined with the cost of a launch with SpaceX could bring more opportunities.

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