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Falcon 9 rocket launches first commercial telecom payload

Posted: December 3, 2013

A kerosene-fueled Falcon 9 launch vehicle owned and operated by SpaceX climbed away from Florida's Space Coast on Tuesday, steering into orbit more than 50,000 miles above Earth with a television broadcasting satellite in a successful flight signaling the changing landscape of the commercial launch industry.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral's Complex 40 launch pad at 5:41 p.m. EST (2241 GMT) with the SES 8 communications satellite. Credit: SpaceX
The success is a key turning point in SpaceX's 11-year history, proving the company is capable of tackling more challenging launch missions, such as deploying communications satellites, military payloads and interplanetary probes.

The achievement also positions SpaceX to snare more commercial launch contracts, going up against Europe's Ariane 5 and Russia's Proton rockets, which have launched nearly all of the world's large telecommunications satellites in the last five years.

The flight was grounded more than a week by a series of technical snafus, forcing SpaceX to bypass launch opportunities Nov. 25 and on Thanksgiving Day. Over the weekend, technicians cleaned components of the rocket's first stage engines and replaced a gas generator in one of the powerplants.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 5:41 p.m. EST (2241 GMT), moments after the rocket's Merlin engines ignited, powered up to more than a million pounds of thrust and pushed the towering booster into clear skies just after sunset.

The flight started slow by design, with the rocket taking 10 seconds to clear the launch pad's four lightning masts, but the 224-foot-tall launcher passed the speed of sound about a minute later and reached an altitude of more than 50 miles in less than three minutes.

The rocket's ascent took it into sunlight, illuminating the launcher's expanding teardrop-shaped exhaust plume as it rose into rarified air in the upper atmosphere. Observers near the launch site could see the rocket for nearly seven minutes until it dipped below the eastern horizon.

The rocket's single-engine upper stage fired for more than five minutes to reach a safe orbit, then shut down and coasted across the Atlantic Ocean before re-igniting to go higher.

The two-stage rocket put the SES 8 communications satellite, worth approximately $100 million, into an on-target orbit arcing more than 50,000 miles above Earth, then released the 6,918-pound spacecraft to conclude the first commercial launch from Cape Canaveral in more than four years.

This image from a camera on-board the Falcon 9 second stage shows the Earth from an altitude of 8,000 miles after Tuesday's launch. Credit: SpaceX
"The successful insertion of the SES 8 satellite confirms the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle delivers to the industry's highest performance standards," said Elon Musk, CEO and chief designer of SpaceX, in a post-launch press release. "As always, SpaceX remains committed to delivering the safest, most reliable launch vehicles on the market today. We appreciate SES's early confidence in SpaceX and look forward to launching additional SES satellites in the years to come."

The mission marked the first time SpaceX sent one of its rockets to such a high orbit.

All of SpaceX's launches so far have deployed payloads no higher than 1,000 miles. An extra burn of the rocket's upper stage engine was necessary to reach SES 8's objective 50 times higher.

A demonstration of the in-flight engine restart did not go well on the Falcon 9's last flight in September. The engine's igniter fluid lines froze, preventing the upper stage from building up thrust.

The restart appeared to go smoothly Tuesday.

High-altitude orbits are favored by commercial communications satellites, most of which beam television programming, broadband services and data from a perch 22,300 miles over the equator.

Such a position, known as a geostationary orbit, allows a satellite to stay in a fixed position in the sky because its speed around Earth matches the rate of the planet's rotation. It means users on the ground can link up with the satellite through small fixed antennas instead of requiring expensive equipment to track the spacecraft across the sky.

SpaceX lofted SES 8 into a "supersynchronous" transfer orbit well above geostationary altitude and inclined about 21 degrees to the equator, and the satellite will use its own engines to settle into its 22,300-mile-high perch by early December.

Sending SES 8 a quarter of the way to the moon makes it easier to adjust the satellite's orbit, saving precious fuel to extend the platform's lifetime. Five burns of the spacecraft's main engine are planned in the next two weeks to reach the circular geostationary orbit.

Artist's concept of the SES 8 satellite in orbit with antennas and solar arrays deployed. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
"We use the extra altitude to start reducing the inclination to come back into the equatorial plane," said Martin Halliwell, chief technical officer of Luxembourg-based SES, the world's second-largest communications satellite operator. "The analogy is like trying to undo your wheel nuts on your car. If you have a spanner a foot long, it's one thing. If you have a spanner three feet long, it's easy. We're going to the spanner than is three feet long."

After several weeks of systems activations and testing, SES 8 will be pressed into commercial service in January parked at 95 degrees east longitude alongside another SES satellite named NSS 6. Built by Orbital Sciences Corp., the SES 8 satellite carries Ku-band and Ka-band transponders to broadcast direct-to-home television to customers across India, Vietnam, Thailand and neighboring countries, according to Halliwell.

"SES's maiden launch on board a Falcon 9 rocket is yet another example of our company's spirit of innovation and advancement of the commercial space industry," said Romain Bausch, president and CEO of SES. "We congratulate the SpaceX team for the success of a challenging launch campaign and our longstanding supplier Orbital for innovating with us in exploring new paths to orbit while delivering a brand-new, state-of-the-art satellite for Asia."

The launch of SES 8 begins a busy stretch of missions for SpaceX. The company's Falcon 9 launch manifest is crammed with missions for NASA and commercial customers as the space transportation firm ramps up to a flight rate of one launch per month by the end of next year, Musk said before Tuesday's mission.

SES did not disclose exactly how much it paid for Tuesday's launch, but officials suggested it was on the low end of SpaceX's publicly-accessible launch fares. That would put the price in the $55 million to $60 million range, less than any of SpaceX's competitors from Europe, Russia and the United States.

The next Falcon 9 launch is scheduled in late December with the Thaicom 6 communications satellite. The rocket and spacecraft for that mission are already in storage at Cape Canaveral and will begin launch preps soon.

At least 10 geostationary transfer orbit flights like Tuesday's launch are on the books with SpaceX, plus a myriad of other missions for NASA's space station resupply program, foreign governments and a slate of seven flights for the next-generation satellite fleet owned by Iridium Communications.

SpaceX's backlog is worth more than $3 billion and covers nearly 50 launches. The company says about 60 percent of the manifest is taken up by commercial customers.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.