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Satellite operator SES buys used SpaceX rocket to fly again

In April, the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket completed SpaceX’s first successful droneship landing. The stage will fly again later this year to help boost an SES communications satellite into orbit.

SpaceX

In a space milestone, Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES will launch its SES-10 communications station atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later this year using a “flight proven,” or used, first stage that landed on an off-shore droneship earlier this year, company officials said Tuesday.

“Having been the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX back in 2013, we are excited to once again be the first customer to launch on SpaceX’s first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket,” Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer at SES, said in a statement.

“We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management.”

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk said in a tweet: “Thanks for the longstanding faith in SpaceX. We very much look forward to doing this milestone flight with you.”

SpaceX advertises new Falcon 9 rockets at $62 million a copy. It is not known how much SES is paying for the SES-10 launch, but estimates of a discount range as high as 30 percent.

The Falcon 9 first stage was designed from the ground up to be able to return to Earth for a rocket-powered landing, either on an offshore droneship or on land depending on the trajectory, the weight of the payload and the amount of left-over propellant. The goal is to routinely recover, refurbish and relaunch booster stages to dramatically lower launch costs.

SpaceX began testing first stage recovery procedures in 2013 and pulled off its first successful landing back at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station last December. Since then, the company has successfully recovered four stages with offshore droneship landings and one after a return to the Cape in July. SpaceX’s overall landing record now stands at six successful recoveries in 11 attempts.

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The Falcon 9 first stage descends to touchdown last April after helping boost a space station cargo ship into orbit for NASA.

SpaceX

The stage that will be used to launch the SES-10 communications satellite helped launch a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station last April before pulling off SpaceX’s first successful droneship landing. A date for the booster’s second launch has not been announced, but it is expected before the end of the year and could come as early as mid October, according to Spaceflight Now.

“The due diligence the SpaceX team has demonstrated throughout the design and testing of the SES-10 mission launch vehicle gives us full confidence that SpaceX is capable of launching our first SES satellite dedicated to Latin America into space,” Halliwell said in the SES statement.

Added Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and CEO: “Re-launching a rocket that has already delivered spacecraft to orbit is an important milestone on the path to complete and rapid reusability.”

The SES-10 satellite, built by Airbus Defense and Space, will be part of the Simon Bolivar 2 satellite network. It is the first SES relay station totally dedicated to Latin America, providing expanded direct-to-home television and data services.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."