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The Teslarati article SpaceX’s April 7th Falcon Heavy launch a step toward new commercial markets says:

While there is some inherent uncertainty surrounding the (once again) fairly new rocket, SpaceX has now officially filed a plan with the Cape Canaveral range authorities that would see Falcon Heavy nominally conduct a critical static fire test as soon as March 31st, followed one week later by a launch target of no earlier than (NET) 6:36 pm EDT (22:36 UTC), April 7th. Set to place the ~6000 kg (13,200 lb) Arabsat 6A communications satellite in a high-energy geostationary orbit, a successful mission that ultimately proves Falcon Heavy’s commercial utility could also raise global launch market interest in the rocket, including potential anchor customers like NASA.

  1. What (if anything) is meant by "a high-energy geostationary orbit"?

  2. It SpaceX bringing the satellite all the way to a cis-GEO orbit, or is this a launch only to GTO?

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    $\begingroup$ As you imply, a "high-energy" geostationary orbit isn't really a thing - all true geostationary orbits will have the same energy. I suspect they mean "high energy" in the sense of "higher than low Earth orbits". As to 2. I believe it's going to either a standard GTO or a super-sync orbit, both of which will require the payload to provide some manoeuvring after deployment $\endgroup$ – Jack Mar 21 '19 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Jack Would "super-sync orbit" be an orbit with higher energy than GEO, or lower? I never know if the "super" means a faster speed or higher semimajor axis. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 21 '19 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ A transfer orbit with its apoapsis above geostationary altitude. Wikipedia says that it also refers to an orbit with a larger period than GSO, but I think it more commonly refers to the above described transfer $\endgroup$ – Jack Mar 21 '19 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ I would answer, but I'm not certain on the insertion orbit, so I'll leave it for now for someone who knows better places to look for sources! $\endgroup$ – Jack Mar 21 '19 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Jack alludes to this in the comments and it is central to John Sager's answer, but I would guess the author was just mistaken and the sentence should read: "Set to place the ~6000 kg (13,200 lb) Arabsat 6A communications satellite in a high-energy geostationary transfer orbit." $\endgroup$ – ben Apr 14 '19 at 17:38
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The other answerer is on the right track. I believe the description of a "high energy geostationary orbit" is a mistake on the part of the author: it should be called a "high energy geostationary transfer orbit" (hereafter GTO).

First, let me detail how a traditional GTO is used from an inclined launch site. The launcher will throw the satellite into a transfer orbit with an apogee of geosynchronous altitude (35,786 km). At apogee, the satellite will perform a burns which simultaneously reduces inclination to 0° and raises its perigee to geosynchronous altitude. After this combined burn, the satellite is in geostationary orbit.

The reason why the inclination change and perigee raise maneuvers are combined is simple trigonometry--burning diagonally requires less total energy to achieve the same final velocity (not just speed, the direction matters a lot!) than burning one way and then burning perpendicular to that direction. Additionally, this is done at geosynchronous altitude because the satellite is traveling slower there than it was at low earth altitude. Thus, changing direction does not require as much change in velocity (delta-V).

Falcon Heavy launched Arabsat 6a into a transfer orbit with an apogee of 90,000 km, well above the geosynchronous altitude of 35,786 km. At that altitude, it was traveling very, very slowly, so the combined inclination change and perigee raise burn required even less dV from Arabsat than if it had happened at GEO. But Arabsat would not yet have been in geostationary orbit. It needed to perform one more circularization burn at perigee to slow itself back down and lower its apogee from 90 Mm to geosynchronous altitude.

This kind of an "overshooting" transfer into a higher orbit is not a Hohmann transfer orbit, it is a bi-elliptic transfer. Despite requiring two burns rather than just one, bi-elliptic transfers can require less dV in some cases. Raising from LEO to GEO is not one of these cases. The total dV required is greater than a traditional GTO.

However, the lower-energy burns required of Arabsat to enter GEO from its transfer orbit expended much less dV than the single burn to enter GEO from a traditional GTO.

The difference in energy was made up by Falcon Heavy, which placed Arabsat in the high energy geostationary transfer orbit which threw it out to 90 Mm instead of 35.7ish Mm.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is excellent, thank you! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jan 28 at 5:56
  • $\begingroup$ If this answers your question, please don't hesitate to mark it as such. $\endgroup$ – Anton Hengst Jan 29 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ I see you've written three excellent answers so far and none of them have been accepted yet. In my case I usually wait at least a few days before accepting for a few reasons. One is that there can be additional answers and a quick acceptance of one can discourage others from posting additional interesting and helpful answers for future readers to enjoy, and another is that acceptance bumps the question to the active queue which usually means a few more people will see the answer and vote on it. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jan 29 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ Today I learned! $\endgroup$ – Anton Hengst Jan 30 at 0:51
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The transfer orbit for Arabsat 6a went to an apogee of 90,000km. At that height it's travelling very slowly, so adding delta-V needs less energy. The sat needs both to remove the launch inclination (i.e. 28.5 -> 0) and at the same time raise the perigee to geostationary altitude. Then, when the sat reaches perigee the engine is fired again to circularise the orbit. This needs less energy from the sat's own motor but requires more from the launcher.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a very interesting answer, thank you! Can you cite a source for apogee? Thanks! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 13 '19 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ Why does a certain amount of delta-V "need less energy" at low velocity than at high velocity? I thought the velocity influences how much the total kinetic energy is increased by that delta-V (quadratic dependence, Oberth effect). $\endgroup$ – Everyday Astronaut Apr 13 '19 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ The name for this type of transfer to geosynchronous orbits is Supersynchronous. As stated, they are useful for combined plane and perigee changes at relatively low fuel expense. $\endgroup$ – Jack Apr 13 '19 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ -1 temporarily, as a gentle reminder that it's important to cite your sources when quoting factual information. Right now readers (including me) have no way to know if this answer is wrong or correct. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 16 '19 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ @EverydayAstronaut I believe John is a bit mistaken--at altitude, orbital maneuvers which require a change in direction (such as plane changes) require less dV because the satellite is traveling slowly. 500 m/s dV perpendicular to your orbit does a lot more when you're traveling at ~1.5 km/s than at ~3.0 km/s. $\endgroup$ – Anton Hengst Jan 28 at 5:50

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