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SpaceX delivers AsiaSat communications craft to orbit

Posted: August 5, 2014

A Falcon 9 launcher rocketed away from Cape Canaveral early Tuesday, boosting an AsiaSat telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit to beam television and data across China, India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

The Falcon 9 rocket streaks into the predawn sky over Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX
Nine Merlin 1D engines on the 224-foot-tall rocket ignited at 4 a.m. EDT (0800 GMT), ramping up to more than a million pounds of thrust as the Falcon 9 was released from Cape Canaveral's Complex 40 launch pad.

The takeoff was delayed nearly three hours while SpaceX engineers studied an issue on the rocket that triggered a last-minute abort at the opening of Tuesday's launch window.

A commentator on SpaceX's webcast said the problem was on the first stage of the rocket, but the company did not disclose any details.

Sending a wave of sound across the Florida spaceport, the slender booster ascended through clouds and pitched east over the Atlantic Ocean, speeding into space with the AsiaSat 8 communications satellite.

The first stage's nine engines cut off about three minutes after liftoff, leaving the Falcon 9's second stage to complete two burns to place AsiaSat 8 in an elliptical orbit with a high point of about 22,300 miles tilted 24.3 degrees to the equator.

The satellite deployed from the Falcon 9 rocket about 32 minutes into the mission, and officials declared the flight a success. Controllers acquired the first signals from the satellite 54 minutes after launch, according to AsiaSat.

"We are excited that the AsiaSat 8 launch has achieved this significant milestone. This is our first launch with SpaceX, we would like to thank them for their excellent work and effort in making today's launch a success. In the coming weeks, we will work closely with Space Systems/Loral, our long-term partner, on the post-launch maneuvers and in-orbit testing of AsiaSat 8," said William Wade, AsiaSat's president and CEO.

"The addition of AsiaSat 8 to our existing fleet of four in-orbit satellites will expand our fleet capacity and enable us to serve a wider range of customers for advanced satellite services, from DTH, data broadcasting to broadband services," Wade said in a press release.

Tuesday's launch was the 11th flight of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and its third mission with a telecom payload delivered into geostationary transfer orbit, the drop-off point for most commercial broadcasting satellites.

Based on Loral's 1300 platform, an on-board propulsion system will raise the satellite's altitude into a circular geosynchronous orbit a few days after launch, then AsiaSat 8 will complete in-orbit testing and enter service.

AsiaSat 8 will be parked along the equator at 105.5 degrees east longitude, where it will hover 22,300 miles over Asia, broadcasting direct-to-home television signals to China, India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, according to Hong Kong-based AsiaSat.

The satellite's 24 Ku-band transponders -- routing signals through four communications beams -- will also support data broadcasting and other telecom services. AsiaSat 8 also carries a Ka-band communications payload.

The new spacecraft will be the most powerful member of AsiaSat's fleet. It will be co-located with the AsiaSat 7 satellite launched in 2011.

"The additional capacity from AsiaSat 8 will help meet growing market demand and ensure the delivery of exceptionally high power and quality service to its customers," AsiaSat said in a press release.

AsiaSat 8 is designed to operate for 15 years. The craft weighed 4,535 kilograms -- 9,998 pounds -- when fully fueled for launch, according to an AsiaSat spokesperson.

Artist's concept of the AsiaSat 8 satellite. Credit: Space Systems/Loral
The satellite's high-altitude destination left no margin for SpaceX to attempt a recovery of the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage as tried on the launcher's last two flights.

AsiaSat 8 used nearly all of the Falcon 9's lift capacity to reach the launch's targeted geostationary transfer orbit.

On the last two Falcon 9 flights -- in April and July for NASA and Orbcomm -- the rocket had leftover propellant to re-ignite its first stage engines for a controlled descent into the Atlantic Ocean downrange from Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX is demonstrating its technique for recovering the rocket's first stage, with an eye toward trying a rocket-assisted landing on the ground or on a ocean-going platform by the end of the year.

The objective is to make the first stage reusable, an achievement SpaceX claims will slash launch costs and make space access more routine.

But the reusability prospects for the Falcon 9 will be limited to certain missions where the launcher's performance is not entirely consumed by its payload. Some launches of commercial communications satellites to geostationary transfer orbit will use up all of the Falcon 9's capability.

SpaceX plans to launch the heaviest telecom satellites on the Falcon Heavy, a powerful rocket composed of three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together. The Falcon Heavy has not flown yet, with an inaugural launch from Kennedy Space Center's launch pad 39A set for some time next year.

Tuesday's launch was the second of four SpaceX missions from Florida planned in a two-month period.

The launches have stacked up in quick succession after multi-month delays in a pair of Falcon 9 flights earlier this year.

A launch of a space station resupply mission this spring was delayed a month after concerns with the Dragon cargo craft and Falcon 9 rocket conspired with a fire at a U.S. Air Force range radar facility to keep the flight grounded.

A series of rocket-related problems kept six Orbcomm machine-to-machine communications satellites from launching for more than two months.

The Orbcomm mission was supposed to lift off in early May, but leaks in the rocket's helium pressurization system, a problem with an engine steering actuator, weather and additional inspections ordered on one of the six payloads meant launch did not occur until July 14.

Later this month, SpaceX plans another launch for AsiaSat. The AsiaSat 6 satellite -- already being prepared for launch in Cape Canaveral -- is scheduled for liftoff before the end of the month.

Then SpaceX is preparing for the launch of a Dragon supply ship to the International Space Station no earlier than Sept. 12.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.