SpaceX launches comsat for Turkmenistan

CBS News

After waiting for a break in cloudy weather, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off and boosted a powerful communications satellite into orbit Monday, the first relay station built for the government of Turkmenistan.

The 224-foot-tall Falcon 9's Merlin 1D first stage engines ignited at 7:03 p.m. EDT (GMT-4), pushing the slender booster away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Liftoff came 49 minutes late because of thick clouds and electrically active anvils near the launch pad, but conditions improved enough as the 90-minute launch window wore on for mission managers to clear the rocket for flight.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket took off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Monday, boosting a communications satellite into orbit for Turkmenistan. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

Climbing through low clouds, the rocket arced away to the east over the Atlantic Ocean trailing a brilliant plume of fiery exhaust from its nine first stage engines and leaving a thundering roar in its wake. The rocket quickly disappeared from view.

The initial climb out of the lower atmosphere went smoothly, according to a SpaceX launch commentator, and just under three minutes after liftoff, the Falcon's first stage fell away. A single Merlin 1D engine in the rocket's second stage then ignited to continue the climb toward orbit.

Because of the weight of the TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat relay station -- 10,375 pounds -- and the requirements of the payload's orbit, SpaceX made no attempt to land the first stage on an off-shore barge.

The company is attempting to perfect techniques needed for recovering and eventually re-flying spent stages, but landing attempts require lighter payloads to ensure enough left-over propellant is available. The next booster landing attempt is planned for June when SpaceX launches a space station cargo ship.

The Falcon 9 launched Monday boosted the TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat, built by Thales Alenia Space, into an initial parking orbit about nine minutes after liftoff. After a second burn to raise the high point of the orbit to nearly 23,000 miles, the relay station was released to fly on its own about 32 minutes after launch.

"Rocket launch good, satellite in geo transfer orbit," SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted. "Still so damn intense. Looking (forward) to it feeling normal one day."

Subsequent firings by the satellite's on-board thrusters eventually will raise the low point of the orbit, putting the relay station in a circular orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. Satellites in such geostationary orbits take 24 hours to complete one trip around the planet and thus appear stationary in the sky.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and launch services were purchased by Thales Alenia Space on behalf of Turkmenistan.

TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat eventually will be maneuvered to 52 degrees east longitude, an orbital slot controlled by Space Systems International-Monaco. In exchange, 12 of the satellite's 38 transponders were given to SSI, which in turn licensed their use to SES, a major communications satellite operator.

The remaining transponders will be operated by the Turkmenistan Ministry of Communications.

The launching Monday came three days after Human Rights Watch released a statement claiming Turkmenistan is attempting to force residents to dismantle privately owned satellite dishes, a move that "serves to further isolate people in Turkmenistan, one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, from independent sources of news and information."

This was the 18th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket, all successful, and SpaceX's fifth flight so far this year.