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December 4, 2013 12:18 am
SpaceX finally succeeded in getting its first commercial satellite delivery off the ground at the third time of asking on Tuesday, taking entrepreneur Elon Musk’s tally of successful Falcon 9 rocket launches to seven.
The mission to put an SES telecommunications satellite into a high orbit from Cape Canaveral in Florida had been aborted at the last minute twice last week, including on Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.
“Falcon 9 executed a picture-perfect flight, meeting 100 per cent of mission objectives,” SpaceX said in a statement after Tuesday’s launch.
Since its first demonstration flight in 2010, SpaceX’s Dragon 9 rocket has made a further five successful launches, including last year becoming the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.
While those earlier launches were either tests or serving Nasa, this week’s lift-off was SpaceX’s first commercial contract – a key test for the 11-year-old company.
It is also the Falcon’s first launch into geostationary orbit, where satellites remain in the same position above the ground, rather than previous deliveries into low-earth orbit, where satellites spin about the globe. At its highest point, SpaceX took the SES-8 to 50,000 miles above the earth before transferring the satellite into orbit.
Once deployed, SES plans to use the satellite, which weighs nearly 7,000 pounds – roughly the size of a small boat – to broadcast TV and communications services to South Asia. It has contracted SpaceX to launch another three satellites, starting in 2015.
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“The successful insertion of the SES-8 satellite confirms the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle delivers to the industry’s highest performance standards,” said Mr Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive.
SpaceX’s manifest of 50 planned launches says it will make three more flights before the end of the year, including another ISS resupply and two more commercial satellites. More than half of the forthcoming voyages are for commercial clients but Tuesday’s launch also marks another step towards certification for serving the US Air Force.
The closely watched venture by Mr Musk, the former PayPal entrepreneur who is also chief executive at Tesla Motors, is one of several new private space companies taking advantage of falling costs of technology and launches, from “nano-satellites” such as San Francisco’s Planet Labs to Amazon chief Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
Last Thursday, Mr Musk chose to abort the Falcon’s launch citing a “slower than expected thrust ramp”. “Better to be paranoid and wrong,” he said on Twitter.
Three days earlier, “unexpected readings” in the rocket’s liquid oxygen system were one of three last-minute hitches that prompted a postponement.
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