Taiwanese satellite rides SpaceX rocket into orbit – Spaceflight Now
Flying with an exceptionally lightweight payload, a Falcon 9 rocket delivered a multipurpose research satellite into a nearly 450-mile-high orbit Thursday for Taiwan following a smooth countdown and liftoff from California’s Central Coast.
Weighing in at about a half-ton, or 475 kilograms, the Formosat 5 satellite doubles as an orbiting observatory to look down on Earth and as a pathfinder for Taiwan’s future space ambitions.
Formosat 5 climbed into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which lifted off at 11:51 a.m. PDT (2:51 p.m. EDT; 1851 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Originally slated to fly on SpaceX’s discontinued Falcon 1 rocket, Formosat 5 is the first major space mission fully designed, manufactured and tested in Taiwan. It follows Formosat 2, a European-built satellite owned by Taiwan’s National Space Organization, or NSPO, launched in 2004 from Vandenberg on a Taurus rocket.
Formosat 2 was retired last year, well after Formosat 5 was originally scheduled for launch. But the project ran into delays in Taiwan, and Formosat 5’s launch was switched to a larger Falcon 9 rocket once SpaceX ended its Falcon 1 rocket program.
Two SpaceX rocket mishaps over the last two years also contributed to the delays.
But the pre-launch worries faded Thursday with an on-target launch directly into Formosat 5’s planned operating perch around 450 miles (720 kilometers) above Earth. Formosat 5 will fly in a sun-synchronous orbit, allowing its camera to regularly take photos of locations around the world, supporting scientific research and disaster monitoring functions.
The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket soared through low clouds a few seconds after liftoff, then turned south on course to place its payload into an orbit flying over Earth’s poles.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 switched off its nine Merlin engines around two-and-a-half minutes into the mission, then detached 60 miles (100 kilometers) over the Pacific Ocean to begin a ballistic plummet toward a remotely-controlled floating barge.
Meanwhile, the upper stage’s single Merlin engine fired six-and-a-half minutes to send Formosat 5 into orbit. About a minute after the Falcon 9 and Formosat 5 arrived in orbit, the first stage touched down on its landing target, making a propulsive vertical descent before settling on the platform with the aid of four deployable legs.
Moments later, Formosat 5 flew free from the Falcon 9’s upper stage. Live video from a camera mounted on the rocket showed the Taiwanese satellite receding from view.
The NSPO said ground controllers received the first radio signals from Formosat 5 via a ground station in Svalbard, Norway, around 83 minutes after liftoff, confirming the craft’s condition and health.
The Falcon 9’s upper stage was programmed to reignite its engine later Thursday for a de-orbit maneuver to burn up in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
SpaceX and Formosat 5’s owner declared success, making the Falcon 9 booster 12-for-12 this year after returning to service in the wake of an on-pad rocket explosion last year. Thursday’s launch also marked the 40th Falcon 9 flight overall since SpaceX debuted the first version of the launcher in June 2010.
The first stage on Thursday’s launch, a newly-manufactured booster, will return to port in Southern California in a few days for inspections, refurbishment and potential reuse on a future mission.
Thursday’s flight was the fifth time a Falcon 9 rocket has launched from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 4-East, a hillside launch complex previously used by heavy-lift Titan 4 rockets.
The Air Force’s Western Range manages tracking and support infrastructure at Vandenberg.