SpaceX Falcon 9 launches AsiaSat 8 relay station

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 04:15 AM ET, 08/05/14: SpaceX launches commercial comsat
  • Updated at 05:00 AM ET, 08/05/14: SpaceX confirms satellite separation (1grafsubafter5thgraf x x x push to space; pickup7thgraf: The AsiaSat X X X)
CBS News

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosted a powerful communications satellite into orbit early Tuesday after a sky-lighting liftoff from Cape Canaveral, the first of two commercial relay stations the company plans to launch this month before a cargo flight to the International Space Station in September.

Adding a bit of last-second drama, an initial attempt to launch the rocket at 1:25 a.m. EDT (GMT-4) was aborted with less than a minute to go because of an unspecified technical problem with the first stage. The countdown was reset and after resolving the issue, mission managers decided to press ahead for another launch try.

This time around, the countdown ticked all the way to zero and the Falcon 9's nine Merlin 1D first-stage engines ignited with a rush of flame at 4 a.m.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the AsiaSat 8 communications satellite streaks away from Cape Canaveral through an overcast sky early Tuesday as seen in this time exposure. (Credit: SpaceX)

Generating a thunderous roar and 1.3 million pounds of thrust, the 224-foot-tall rocket majestically climbed away from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station trailing a brilliant plume of fiery exhaust, arcing to the east toward orbit as it consumed its load of oxygen and kerosene propellant.

Live video from a "rocketcam" attached to the booster showed the first stage falling away about three minutes into flight. The rocket's second stage engine then ignited for the first of two planned "burns," its nozzle glowing bright orange as it continued the push to space.

The AsiaSat 8 communications satellite was released from the second stage about 32 minutes after launch. From an initially elliptical orbit, the satellite's on-board thrusters will fire over the next few weeks to put the craft into a circular geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the equator.

Given the weight of the satellite and the requirements of the initial orbit, the Falcon 9 first stage was not expected to have enough propellant left to attempt a "soft landing" in the ocean as part of the company's on-going drive to perfect technques for recovery and resuse of Falcon 9 components.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk says "rapid reusability" is the key to driving down launch costs. But stage recovery tests are only carried out during missions that don't demand the Falcon 9's full lift capability.

AsiaSat 8 will join four other relay stations currently operated by the Asia Satellite Telescommunications Co., or AsiaSat, which provides broadband, data services and more than 450 radio and television channels to more than 710 million households in the Asia-Pacific region.

Built by Space Systems/Loral, AsiaSat 8 is the most powerful relay station yet launched for Hong Kong-based AsiaSat, featuriung 24 Ku-band transponders and a high-speed Ka-band beam.

The new satellite will be located near AsiaSat 7 at 105 degrees east longitude to "help meet the growing market demand for quality satellite services in the Asia-Pacific region," the company said on its web page.

"AsiaSat 8's powerful Ku-band beams cover China, India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia (providing) flexibility to address market requirements and for services including DTH (direct-to-home) television, private networks and broadband services," the company said.

SpaceX plans to launch a second AsiaSat relay station -- AsiaSat 6 -- before the end of the month.

The flights mark an unprecedented surge for SpaceX that began in mid July with the successful launch of six Orbcomm data relay satellites. That flight, plus the two AsiaSat missions this month, will lead into a fourth flight Sept. 12 to boost a Dragon cargo ship into orbit with supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station.

SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to deliver some 44,000 tons of cargo to the station over 12 flights. The September mission will be the company's fourth operational resupply mission with a fifth on tap in December.

Musk plans to build a company-owned launch site near Brownsville, Texas, to avoid potential launch conflicts and government restrictions imposed on rockets launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX and Texas state officials announced an agreemment Monday, pending additional permits and unspecified local agreements.

"SpaceX is excited to expand our work in Texas with the world's first commercial launch complex designed specifically for orbital missions," Musk said in a statement issued by Gov. Rick Perry's office. "We appreciate the support of Gov. Perry and numerous other federal, state and local officials who have partnered with us to make this vision a reality."

AsiaSat president and CEO William Wade was quoted by Florida Today saying that access to the Florida Air Force station for company employees and guests, many of them foreign nationals, "is proving to be somewhat cumbersome."

"We have to go through all the security clearances, which is expected, but we are finding as a foreign company that it is a bit more difficult conducting our launches there," he said.

Another issue is the possibility that a commercial flight could get delayed beause of a high-priority national security mission.

"The government launches, those are a little bit unpredictable," Wade told Florida Today. "You don't really know whether you're going to get bumped, whether issues might come up that could create a situation where they take precedence. So that has proven to be a little bit more worrisome, whereas in some of our previous experiences elsewhere, we haven't seen that to be as big a factor."