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SpaceX-launched telecom payload enters service

Posted: February 3, 2014

After gambling on SpaceX's first launch beyond low Earth orbit, Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES is reaping the rewards with a newly-operational television broadcasting satellite shot into space from Cape Canaveral in December.

Artist's concept of the SES 8 satellite. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
The SES 8 spacecraft blasted off Dec. 3 on the Falcon 9 rocket's first launch into geostationary transfer orbit, the targeted drop-off point for most telecommunications satellites.

The two-stage Falcon 9 booster deployed SES 8 in an oval-shaped transfer orbit with a high point more than 50,000 miles above Earth.

The high-altitude apogee required a restart of the Falcon 9's second stage, a feat SpaceX attempted and failed to achieve on the rocket's previous mission in September.

Martin Halliwell, SES chief technology officer, said the company waded through engineering reviews and international export regulations last fall to get comfortable with placing the spacecraft, valued at more than $100 million, aboard a Falcon 9 rocket for the untried mission.

SpaceX gave SES a discount on the launch, and the company allowed members of the SES engineering team to inspect the second stage engine and receive detailed briefings on the problem that prohibited an engine restart on the September flight. International arms trade laws forced SES to restrict access to the most sensitive technical information to U.S. citizens. Top SES managers signed off on the launch on the recommendation of the American engineers, who could not share in-depth data with their bosses.

SpaceX blamed the restart anomaly on frozen lines on the engine's ignitor system and beefed up insulation to avoid the issue on future launches.

The Dec. 3 liftoff marked the first commercial communications satellite launch from the United States since 2009, a four-year gap that saw commercial launch business almost exclusively go to the French Arianespace rocket company and International Launch Services, the U.S.-based firm which markets and sells Russian Proton rockets in the global market.

SES 8 launched on a Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX has launched once more since then, delivering the Thaicom 6 satellite into a similar orbit in early January.

Built by Orbital Sciences Corp., the satellite powered its way into a circular orbit 22,300 miles over the equator, deployed its antennas and solar panels, and completed several weeks of activations and tests before SES declared the craft ready for service.

"Extensive in-orbit tests have confirmed the flawless functioning of the spacecraft," SES said in a statement Monday.

The satellite's position in geostationary orbit is at 95 degrees east longitude, where it hovers over a fixed location on Earth as the spacecraft orbits at the same speed as the planet's rotation.

Such an orbit allows antennas on the ground to remain pointed at the same spot in the sky to receive signals.

SES 8 is co-positioned with the NSS 6 satellite, beaming Ku-band and Ka-band services across South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

"It's an extremely important satellite," Halliwell said during a meeting with reporters before the launch. "This is a big growth market for us. It's going to be beaming direct-to-home television to the Indian market, and also direct-to-home and cable TV support to Indochina, Vietnam, etc."

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.