SpaceX Falcon 9 boosts commercial relay station into orbit

CBS News

An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and boosted a commercial communications satellite into orbit Monday, kicking off the new year with the company's second commercial success in a row as it vies to carve out a share of the private sector -- and military -- launch markets.

The Falcon 9 version 1.1's nine first stage engines ignited on time at 5:06 p.m. EST (GMT-5), throttled up to full power and quickly pushed the 225-foot-tall rocket away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with 1.3 million pounds of thrust.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket climbs away from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Tuesday, boosting the Thaicom 6 communications satellite into orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)
Climbing straight up atop a churning rush of fiery exhaust, the slender rocket accelerated through the region of maximum aerodynamic pressure and arced away through low clouds on an easterly trajectory, putting on a dramatic early evening sky show for area residents and tourists.

The Merlin 1D first stage engines shut down about two minutes and 54 seconds after liftoff. Seconds later, the spent first stage fell away and the second stage's single Merlin engine ignited to continue the push to orbit.

The second stage engine burned about five-and-a-half minutes to put the spacecraft in an initial "parking orbit."

The Thaicom-6 communications satellite, the second commercial relay station carried by an upgraded Falcon 9, required a second upper stage engine firing to boost it into a highly elliptical "transfer" orbit, with a low point of around 183 miles and a high point around 55,923 miles.

SpaceX ended live commentary before the second stage burn, but the company said in a Twitter posting at 6 p.m. that "Falcon 9 has successfully deployed Thaicom 6 into its target orbit."

The flight plan called for the 6,650-pound satellite to be released from the Falcon 9 second stage about 31 minutes after launch. Using on-board thrusters, the satellite will be maneuvered into a circular orbit 22,300 miles above the equator where spacecraft take 24 hours to complete one orbit and thus appear stationary in the sky as viewed by ground antennas.

The solar-powered Thaicom 6, an Orbital Sciences Corp. GEOStar-2 satellite, features eight high-speed Ku-Band transponders and 18 C-band transponders.

Stationed at 78.5 degrees east longitude, Thaicom 6 will work in concert with Thaicom 5 to provide more than 500 television channels to subscribers in Thailand and southeast Asia. The C-band transponders also will provide services to Africa, including Madagascar. The satellite has a 15-year design life.

Monday's launching was a major milestone for SpaceX, which is vying to become a major player in the civilian and military launch markets.

The company already holds a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to launch unmanned Dragon cargo ships to the International Space Station using a less powerful variant of the Falcon 9 rocket. Two operational space station resupply missions have been launched so far, with a third scheduled for launch in late February.

To launch heavier commercial communications satellites and military spacecraft, SpaceX upgraded the Falcon 9 to version 1.1, as it is known, equipping the booster with extended propellant tanks, more efficient and lighter engines, a new triply redundant flight computer system and a custom nose cone intended for large commercial satellites.

During an initial test flight in late September, the upgraded rocket successfully boosted a Canadian research satellite into orbit after launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. But a planned restart of the second stage engine -- a requirement for missions carrying communications satellites -- failed.

An analysis indicated the cause was frozen fluid lines leading to the engine's igniter. Engineers resolved the problem by installing insulation and making sure cold oxygen could not impinge on the feed lines.

The corrective work paid off and a second Falcon 9 v1.1 was successfully launched Dec. 3, lofting a commercial communications satellite into orbit for SES World Skies.

Monday's flight was the third apparent success in a row for the Falcon 9 v1.1, a requirement for the company to compete for military launch contracts in a market dominated by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that builds the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 families of rockets.

Assuming the Air Force considers the initial test flight a success -- and a final determination has not been announced -- SpaceX presumably would be clear to compete for upcoming military launch contracts.

According to a SpaceX press kit, the company currently has more than 50 launches on its long-range manifest, including NASA flights and commercial missions, representing nearly $5 billion.