SpaceX delays first commercial launch

Last updated 14:47 26/11/2013
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket
BLASTOFF: A Falcon 9 rocket carrying a small science satellite for Canada being launched from Vandenberg Air Force Station, California, on September 29.

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The entry of Space Exploration Technologies into the business of launching commercial satellites was delayed by a technical glitch that sidelined the firm's Falcon 9 rocket.

Launch of the rocket, which will carry a US$100 million (NZ$121 million) communications satellite owned by Luxembourg-based SES SA, was rescheduled for no earlier than Thursday, Falcon 9 product manager John Insprucker said in a launch webcast.

Previous SES satellites were launched primarily aboard Russian Proton and European Ariane rockets, which cost far more than the approximately US$55 million the company is paying for its ride on SpaceX's Falcon booster, Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of SES, told reporters on Sunday in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

He would not say exactly how much SpaceX undercut the competition but did note that SES received a bit of a discount by agreeing to fly on Falcon 9's first mission to the high altitudes that communication satellites require.

The rocket had been slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5.37pm (11.37am NZ time) on Monday, but delays, including a problem that cropped up less than four minutes before a final attempt to lift off, caused the mission to miss its 66-minute launch window. That prompted officials to call off the launch attempt.

SpaceX has successfully flown its Falcon 9 rocket six times previously, including on September 29, when it test-launched an upgraded Falcon 9, the model that was slated for launch on Monday.

Three SpaceX rockets carried cargo capsules for NASA to the International Space Station, a US$100 billion research complex that flies about 400 km above Earth. The first two Falcon 9 mission were test flights.

The company needs three successful launches of its upgraded Falcon rocket before it will be eligible to compete to carry the US military's largest and most expensive satellites, a market now monopolized by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Privately held SpaceX is aiming for a much higher altitude with the SES launch, its first stab at breaking into a global satellite industry worth nearly US$190 billion (NZUS$231.5 billion) a year.

The satellite, known as SES-8, is expected to be positioned in an elliptical orbit that reaches more than 80,000 km from Earth, about a quarter of the way to the moon.

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That altitude requires less fuel for SES-8 to fly itself into its 36,000-km high operational orbit, thereby extending its service life.

SES has options for three more Falcon flights, including one on the firm's heavy-lift rocket that is under development and expected to debut next year.

SpaceX's launch manifest includes nearly 50 other launches, worth about US$4 billion. About 75 per cent of the flights are for commercial customers.

"Our prices are the most competitive of any in the world," said Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and chief executive. "We will force other rocket companies to either develop new technology that's a lot better or they have to exit the launch market."

SES's Halliwell said SpaceX competitors were "shaking in their shoes."

"There are a lot of people who hope that SpaceX is going to fail," he said. "This is really rocking the industry."

The global satellite industry had revenues of nearly US$190 billion in 2012, including nearly US$90 billion from television services alone, the Satellite Industry Association trade group reported in October. The US share of the market is 45 per cent, the report said.

- Reuters


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