By the light of the waxing moon, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life Sunday night and boosted a pair of Boeing-built communications satellites into orbit, the first commercial relay stations featuring all-electric propulsion, to save weight and dramatically lower launch costs.
Right on time, at 10:50 p.m. EST, the rocket's nine first stage engines ignited and throttled up to full power. After a lightning round of last-instant computer checks, the booster was released from its firing stand at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, kicking off a nine-minute climb to space.
Initially climbing straight up from launch complex 40, the 224-foot-tall Falcon 9 arced away to the east and quickly accelerated as it consumed its load of liquid oxygen and kerosene rocket fuel. The first stage appeared to work normally, shutting down and falling away just under three minutes into flight. The second stage's single engine then ignited with a brilliant burst of fiery exhaust to continue the climb to space.
A second, very short second stage burn about 25 minutes after liftoff apparently went off without a hitch, putting the spacecraft into a highly elliptical orbit. The planned high point, or apogee, was expected to be around 27,200 miles with a low point, or perigee, of about 250 miles.
The ABS 3A satellite was released from the Falcon 9 second stage a half hour after launch, followed by Eutelsat's 115 West B relay station five minutes later.
To reach the 22,300-mile-high circular orbit required for geostationary communications satellites, both relay stations will use innovative low-thrust ion propulsion systems instead of traditional liquid-fueled rocket thrusters.
The advantage is a tremendous weight savings, allowing the Falcon 9 to launch two relatively lightweight but more powerful comsats at the same time, sharing the cost for launch services. The downside is ion propulsion systems generate very low-level thrust compared to chemical rockets and the two satellites launched Sunday will need six to seven-and-a-half months to reach their operational locations instead of 30 days or so.
Ion propulsion, which uses solar electricity to accelerate xenon ions and produce a gentle but continuous thrust, is not new. But it has never been used before as the sole means of raising a relay station's orbit to geostationary altitude.
"Normally, they would have only been used for station-keeping and not for orbit-raising," Ken Betaharon, chief technology officer of ABS, told Spaceflightnow.com. "They have been used for part of the orbit-raising in some of Boeing's other missions. In those cases it took two or three months. But in this case, it's 100 percent orbit-raising using electric thrusters."
While the satellites will need six to seven times longer to reach the desired orbit, the cost savings is enormous.
"The advantage of that, of course, is you don't carry liquid chemical fuel, which is very heavy," Betaharon said. "This particular satellite, each of them weigh around 2,000 kilograms. Typically, if you get a satellite like that from other manufacturers, or even from Boeing using chemical propulsion, they would weigh something around 3,500 to 4,000 kilograms, or in some cases maybe more. That's why, because it's lower mass, we managed to put two of them on one rocket, which right away reduces your launch costs in half."
When ABS and Eutelsat signed up for Falcon 9 launch services several years ago, the rocket cost about $60 million.
"We paid under $30 million for each satellite, which is almost unheard of," Betaharon said.
ABS 3A, featuring three C-band beams and four Ku-band feeds, will be positioned at 3 degrees west longitude, providing VSAT services, TV distribution, maritime and internet connectivity for the Americas, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
The Eutelsat spacecraft, featuring 12 C-band transponders and 34 Ku-band channels, will be positioned at 114.9 degrees, providing coverage from Alaska to South America, including the Galapagos and Easter Island. The new satellite "will be of particular interest to ISPs, aeronautical, maritime, oil and gas, telecom operators and government agencies, as well as news, sports and entertainment broadcasters," the company said on its web site.
During recent launches, SpaceX has been attempting to bring a Falcon 9 first stage back to a landing on an off-shore barge, part of company founder Elon Musk's long-range plans to eventually recover, refurbish and relaunch booster stages to reduce costs even more.
But because of the weight of the satellites launched Sunday -- a combined 9,260 pounds -- and the high orbit the relay stations require, the Falcon 9 did not have enough fuel to attempt a first stage landing. The next landing attempt is planned for a Falcon 9 space station resupply mission scheduled for launch April 10.
Sunday night's launch, the 16th of a Falcon 9, was a purely commercial endeavor. Another commercial flight is planned for March 21, when a Falcon 9 is expected to launch the TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat communications satellite, built by Thales Alenia Space for the government of Turkmenistan.
The busy launch pace is challenging, but Betaharon said he was impressed with the SpaceX operation.
"SpaceX has a bunch of really bright young people," he told Spaceflightnow.com. "They need a little more experience, but to be fair to them, I think they have really worked very hard to accommodate us. They need a little bit more experience in planning. ... They often have to make real-time decisions in their next steps and schedule, but I think that's going to slowly disappear once they have enough launches behind them.
"They are, like I said, a bunch of bright young people, and we've been here to support them. They need a little bit of adult supervision," he joked, "otherwise they are OK. But I think they are really hard-working people and very accommodating."
After the April flight, SpaceX plans three more space station resupply missions before the end of the year with launches tentatively targeted for June 22, Aug. 2 and Dec. 5. A half-dozen commercial flights are expected in 2015.