SpaceX awarded double-satellite Falcon 9 launch contract, sixth win of 2019

Falcon 9 B1051 stands vertical at SpaceX's SLC-4E Vandenberg launch pad, June 2019. (SpaceX)

SpaceX continues to reap the benefits of strong market demand for Falcon 9’s combination of affordability and performance with an announcement that the company has won its sixth launch contract in 2019.

Announced on July 3rd by Space Norway and several other stakeholders, a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch an identical pair of communications satellites to an unusual orbit no earlier than late 2022. Northrop Grumman will build both ~2000-kilogram (4400 lb) spacecraft.

Known officially as the Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM), Space Norway has partnered with satellite operator Inmarsat and the Norwegian Ministry of Defense to provide connectivity to civilian and military users in and around the Arctic. Additionally, the US Air Force will have its own communications payloads on both satellites, rounding out the extremely busy mission.

The two ASBM satellites will be built around the GEOStar-3 bus, originally introduced by Orbital Sciences Corporation (acquired by Alliant Techsystems to become Orbital ATK, then acquired by Northrop Grumman to become Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems). Each satellite will produce 6 kW via solar arrays, while the GEOStar-3 bus can support all-chemical propulsion, all-electric propulsion, or a hybrid approach. Falcon 9’s 2022 launch of ASBM will mark the first time that GEOSat-3 satellites have utilized their stacking capability, with both spacecraft heading to orbit on the same rocket.

Northrop Grumman released this render of the two ASBM spacecraft alongside the announcement that it would be the prime contractor. (Northrop Grumman)

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the ASBM mission is the extremely unusual orbit Falcon 9 will be launching them to. According to info published by Space Norway on June 24th, they will be targeting a final orbit roughly comparable to the Molniya orbits originally used by Soviet Union military communications satellites as early as the mid-1960s. ASBM’s orbits will also be highly elliptical and approximately polar, with an apogee of 43,000 km (26,700 mi) and a perigee of 8000 km (5000 mi). Traditionally, Molniya orbits had much lower perigees, but the higher perigee of ASBM satellites should allow them to operate indefinitely without having to worry about atmospheric drag lowering their orbits.

The ASBM satellites will reach their perigee somewhere over Antarctica and will generally power down their communications hardware until they are back over the Arctic. By having two satellites, the other satellite will be able to guarantee continuous coverage while its twin is out of contact.

Falcon 9 B1046 lifts off for the third time in December 2018. (SpaceX)

With an overall payload weight around 4000 kg (8800 lb), it’s likely that Falcon 9 has the performance necessary to place the spacecraft in a transfer orbit (likely ~300 km by 43,000 km) and safely land on a SpaceX drone ship, in which case the satellites would raise their perigees themselves. It’s unlikely that a recoverable Falcon 9 launch has enough performance to send the satellites directly to their final orbits, although an expendable mission might be able to do it.

Regardless, this launch contract is yet another sign that SpaceX will continue to have strong demand for Falcon 9 launch services in the coming years. ASBM is the sixth win for SpaceX just in the last four or so months, beginning in February with three US military contracts, followed by a NASA contract in April and a Korean mission in June.

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SpaceX awarded double-satellite Falcon 9 launch contract, sixth win of 2019
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