Fourth Time's A Charm As SpaceX Successfully Puts SES-8 In Orbit
December 4, 2013

Fourth Time’s A Charm As SpaceX Successfully Puts SES-8 In Orbit

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

SpaceX can breathe a sigh of relief after a late day launch on December 3 successfully put its upgraded Falcon 9 rocket into space and set an SES-8 telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

Elon Musk and his space transport company had been trying to put the Luxembourg, Germany-owned SES-8 satellite into orbit since last Monday, Nov 25. But a series of glitches forced SpaceX to scrub three separate attempts at a successful lift-off.

On Dec 3, however, the company proved it is a viable contender in the commercial satellite transport game by completing its first ever mission to GTO. The upgraded version 1.1 Falcon 9 launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:41pm EST on Dec 3, carrying its payload to the intended target while also completing 100 percent of its mission objectives.

Lifting off from Space Launch Complex 40, Falcon 9’s second stage single Merlin vacuum engine ignited at 185 seconds after launch to begin a five minute, 20 second burn to deliver SES-8 into a temporary parking orbit. Eighteen minutes after injecting SES-8 into that orbit, the second stage engine reignited for just over a minute to carry the satellite to its final GTO.

“The successful insertion of the SES-8 satellite confirms the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle delivers to the industry’s highest performance standards,” Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer of SpaceX, said in an emailed statement. “As always, SpaceX remains committed to delivering the safest, most reliable launch vehicles on the market today.  We appreciate SES’s early confidence in SpaceX and look forward to launching additional SES satellites in the years to come.”

This was the second time the new rocket has left the Earth. It earlier completed a successful test launch, despite having a glitch in optional firing of the rocket’s upper stage engine. That glitch did not affect the test launch, but was required to complete this new mission.

With the second launch under SpaceX’s belt, it will be required to complete one more successful launch with the upgraded Falcon 9 for it to become launch-worthy for the US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Once Falcon 9 gets certification as a trusted launch vehicle, it will be eligible to compete for all National Security Space (NSS) missions.

Tuesday’s launch also marked SpaceX’s first commercial launch from Cape Canaveral and the launch facility’s first commercial flight in over five years. SpaceX has close to 50 launches on its to-do list, of which some 75 percent are for the commercial sector.

Currently, the commercial market for telecom launches is rather tight, with just a few companies commanding launch opportunities, most notably Arianespace and International Launch Services.

But with SpaceX now becoming a viable option, many customers may begin gravitating toward the US for satellite launches, especially since Musk has noted that his company can drastically undercut the existing costs of satellite launches with his latest rocket. Also, SES, the world’s second-largest satellite operator, has made the case that other satellite operators should take note of SpaceX’s capabilities.

"The entry of SpaceX into the commercial market is a game-changer - it is going to really shake the industry to its roots," SES's chief technical officer Martin Halliwell told BBC News before the launch.

Not to be outdone, however, Arianespace is working diligently to protect its market share in the satellite launching game. It has noted that it is working to boost the performance of its existing rocket design and has plans to develop a cheaper Ariane 6 variant to bring in new launch customers, as well as secure the ones it has now.

If SpaceX can prove its worth with one more launch of the upgraded Falcon 9, it will not only become an even bigger contender in the commercial satellite launch market, it may also grab some shares away from United Launch Alliance, the current dominating launch service for the US military’s satellites.