UPDATE: SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and satellite payload on time at 5:41 pm EST last evening.
Following two aborted launches, private spaceflight company SpaceX is expected to make a third attempt to launch its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida this evening. The rocket will be carrying satellite company SES S.A.’s SES-8 satellite and, if successful, could be a major milestone in SpaceX’s bid to win a place in the commercial satellite launch industry.
The launch is now planned for Tuesday between 5:41 pm EST and 6:47 pm EST, with Wednesday as a backup date.
“All known rocket anomalies have been resolved,” SpaceX reported, on its website.
The Falcon 9 rocket stands at 224.4 feet, weighs 1,115,200 lbs., and has nine engines. It can launch up to 28,991 lbs into Low Earth Orbit, between about 100 and 1,200 miles above Earth (the International Space Station is in that zone). It can also put up to 10,692 lbs into Geostationary Transfer Orbit, the domain of big, commercial satellites.
The SES-8 satellite, weighing 7,100 lbs., is bound for Geostationary Transfer Orbit, some 49,709 miles above Earth. The satellite will provide broadband and other communications services to India, China, and parts of Southeast Asia.
SES, based in Luxembourg, is one the world’s largest satellite operators, with a fleet of 54 satellites. Should all go well in SpaceX's third attempt at launch this evening, the company stands to demonstrate its technological might and jumpstart its vie for lucrative contracts in the growing commercial satellite launch industry.
That industry grew globally by about 38 percent from 2011 to 2012, up to some $6.5 billion, according to the Satellite Industry Association’s 2013 report. It is also worth around $2.2 billion in the United States alone, the association said. The US military currently relies almost entirely on Atlas and Delta rockets from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to launch its satellite payloads.
In the past, SES has used French commercial launch service Arianespace’s line of Ariane rockets and Russian company Khrunichev’s Proton rockets to put its satellites into space. Martin Halliwell, SES’s chief technology officer, told reporters at a press conference in November that SpaceX had charged SES $55 million for the pending launch, undercutting other competitors, though he declined to say by how much. The Falcon 9 launch price posted on SpaceX’s website is $56.5 million.
The Falcon 9 has so far made six successful launches, three of which were to the International Space Station (ISS). In the spring of 2012, SpaceX became the first commercial company to ever to visit the ISS when its Dragon capsule, launched via the Falcon 9 rocket, docked there.
But SpaceX's planned seventh launch has been troublesome. SpaceX was originally due to launch Falcon 9 and its SES-8 payload on Nov. 25, but the launch was scuttled due to anomalies in the rocket’s first stage liquid oxygen system, the company said. The launch was then rescheduled for Thanksgiving Day, but was aborted when the company reported finding oxygen in the igniter fluid.
“We called manual abort. Better to be paranoid and wrong,” tweeted Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, after the second cancelled launch.
On Thanksgiving, the company said that the earliest date for the third attempt would be Monday, Dec. 2nd. That date was then pushed back to Tuesday evening.
In addition to vying for satellite launch contracts, SpaceX is also in the midst of competing for a NASA contract to ferry astronauts and supplies between the Earth and the ISS.
Since dismantling its space shuttle program in 2011, NASA has paid $70 million a seat to Russia's space agency to use its Soyuz capsule to send astronauts to the ISS. Meanwhile, the American space agency has supplied SpaceX and other private spaceflight companies, including Sierra Nevada and Boeing, with millions to fund the development of crafts to supplant its expensive dependence on Russia.
In October, Sierra Nevada's prototype for its Dream Chaser spacecraft sustained mild damage in a faulty landing during a test flight. A video of the flight posted afterward on Sierra Nevada’s website cut before the botched touchdown.