SpaceX Falcon 9 launches first commercial comsat

CBS News

Running more than a week late because of technical snags, including a dramatic Thanksgiving Day pad abort, SpaceX sucessfully launched an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket carrying a communications satellite Tuesday, the opening salvo in a closely watched bid to win a share of the commercial launch market with low-cost assembly-line boosters.

Under a clear twilight sky, the 224-foot-tall rocket's nine Merlin 1D first stage engines roared to life with a rush of flame at 5:41 p.m. EST (GMT-5), throttled up to nearly a million pounds of thrust and quickly pushed the booster skyward trailing a brilliant jet of fiery exhaust.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket climbs away from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Tuesday, boosting a commercial communications satellite into orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

It was only the second flight of an upgraded Falcon 9, featuring stretched propellant tanks, a new flight computer and more efficient engines, and the company's first flight with a non-government commercial satellite on board.

Smoothly accelerating as it consumed its load of liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel, the slender rocket arced away to the east as it climbed out of the dense lower atmosphere, leaving a crackling roar in its wake and putting on a spectacular evening sky show visible for miles around.

Mounted inside a protective nose cone fairing was a 24-transponder GEOStar 2 relay station built by Orbital Sciences Corp. and owned by SES World Skies, a Luxembourg-based company that operates a fleet of more than 50 communications stations.

Martin Halliwell, the chief technology officer of SES, said the company decided to risk a satellite on the first launch of an upgraded Falcon 9 because of a growing need for an alternative, less expensive rocket to offset higher satellite costs and lower revenue streams in emerging markets.

As such, the flight represented a major milestone for both SpaceX and SES, an attempt to shake up the status quo with low-cost rockets built in-house at SpaceX's Hawthorne, Calif., factory with state-of-the-art technology and non-traditional management.

"I think it's going to have a pretty significant impact on the world launch market and on the launch industry because our prices are the most competitive of any in the world," SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk told reporters before launch.

Thierry Guillemin, chief technical officer of Intelsat, a leading satellite operator, told Spaceflight Now that SpaceX "has already infused a lot of positive energy and they are poised to be a game-changer."

"I think they ... are starting to have an impact already on the rest of the industry," he said. "I think it will push innovation across the board."

Launch originally was scheduled for Nov. 25, but the flight was delayed to Thanksgiving because of unexpected pressure fluctuations in the first stage liquid oxygen propellent system. The three-day slip was required because the Federal Aviation Administration would not impose airspace restrictions for launch tries Nov. 26 and 27, two of the heaviest travel days of the year.

Last Thursday, the countdown reached zero and the engines briefly ignited but the launching was aborted on computer command after the thrust did not ramp up as rapidly as expected. Company officials later said the problem was caused by oxygen in the engine igniter fluid supplied by a ground system.

Engineers worked over the weekend to inspect and clean the nine first stage engines, replacing a gas generator on the center engine. Musk tweeted the engines appeared to be in good shape, raising the possibility of a launch try Monday. But Musk tweeted later that engineers needed more time to complete a thorough data review.

The Falcon 9's first stage appeared to perform flawlessly and about three minutes after liftoff, the engines shut down as planned. A few seconds later, the spent stage fell away, the single Merlin 1D engine powering the second stage fired up and the push to space continued.

As the rocket climbed out of the discernible atmosphere, the exhaust trail expanded dramatically, giving the plume an ephemeral tadpole shape in the darkening sky with a brilliant point of light at its heart.

About eight-and-a-half minutes after launch, the second stage engine shut down as planned, putting the Falcon and its 3.2-ton satellite payload into a preliminary orbit.

So far, the ascent resembled earlier flights by SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets carrying NASA-sponsored cargo capsules bound for the International Space Station.

The Falcon 9's second stage engine nozzle glows against the limb of the Earth as the rocket climbed toward a preliminary orbit. After another second stage firing, the SES-8 satellite was released into its planned "transfer" orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

But the SES-8 communications satellite 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 53,748 miles.

The satellite was equipped with on-board thrusters to circularize the orbit at 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.

Tuesday's launch was SpaceX's first attempt to boost a commercial comsat into the required transfer orbit. Tension was high because during a test flight in late September, an attempt to restart the second stage as a test ended in failure when fluid feed lines to the engine's igniter froze in the cold of space.

The lines were insulated to prevent a repeat of the problem and 27 minutes after liftoff, the second stage fired up as planned and burned for about a minute and 11 seconds to complete the push to the desired geostationary transfer orbit.

"Restart was good," Musk said in a Twitter posting. "Apogee raised to 80k km (50k miles). Yes!"

The satellite's liquid apogee motor is expected to fire five times over the next two weeks or so to circularize the orbit and to maneuver to a parking slot 22,300 miles above the equator at 95 degrees east longitude. If all goes well, the satellite will join another SES relay station already in orbit to provide direct-to-home television, broadband internet and other services to India and southeast Asia.

The SES-8 satellite is valued at around $100 million. The exact cost of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket is not known, but the company website advertises prices between $56.5 million and $77.1 million.

For comparison, a Russian-built Proton rocket, marketed by International Launch Services, a U.S. subsidiary of Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, is believed to sell for around $100 million. A heavy-lift Ariane 5, marketed by the European consortium Arianespace and typically used to launch two satellites at a time, is believed to run around $200 million to $225 million per rocket.

Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets built and sold by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are used primarily for U.S. government payloads and are not currently major players in the civilian commercial launch market.

But SpaceX hopes to eventually compete with ULA as well after meeting Pentagon requirements for demonstrating the Falcon 9's reliability.

"Let me put this very clearly. The entry of SpaceX into the commercial market is a game changer," Halliwell said. "It's going to really shake the industry to its roots."

But Stephane Israel, director of Arianespace, downplayed SpaceX's impact in an interview published last week in the French newspaper Les Echos.

"No, it's not an upheaval," he said. "SpaceX's ambitious objectives have been known for the last decade. ... If today's launch is successful, that will just confirm that we have another competitor."

Even so, he said SpaceX has a long way to go before it can challenge Arianespace, with its years of expertise and a long track record of successful launchings.

"I've always said that we shouldn't underestimate them, but we shouldn't overestimate them either!" he said of SpaceX. "Arianespace is the market leader. We have a success rate that SpaceX will take years to equal. Our Ariane 5 launcher is the most reliable on the market. And it's also more available, because our Ariane 5 manifest is not saturated with government launches, as is the manifest for the SpaceX Falcon. So it's just another day in the life of Arianespace."

But he said Arianespace already was looking at its own costs and "if we have to adapt because of competition, then we will do so."

"So I'm ready to work with our partners to see if savings are possible," he said. "In fact, SpaceX interests me in the sense that it could foster a move to a more entrepreneurial environment, with more private initiatives supported by a real European commitment."