SpaceX Poised for Historic Commercial Milestone (Update)

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Update: A glitch on the launch pad caused Monday's launch attempt of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and its payload -- a communications satellite -- to be scrubbed until Nov. 28 (Thanksgiving Day). In a Twitter update, the commercial spaceflight company's CEO Elon Musk said: "Saw pressure fluctuations on Falcon boost stage liquid oxygen tank. Want to be super careful, so pushing launch to Thurs."

Original: So far, Space Exploration Technologies, the privately owned rocket company founded and run by internet entrepreneur/Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, has flown its Falcon 9 rocket six times all successfully, including three missions for NASA to fly cargo to the International Space Station.

The last flight, on Sept. 29, was a test run for the company, also known as SpaceX, to check out a new upgraded version of Falcon 9, which blasts off with 60 percent more power than the original vehicle.

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On Monday, another upgraded Falcon 9 will be tasked with what may be a bellwether mission for the commercial satellite industry. The rocket, which is slated to lift off at 5:37 p.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carries a 3.5-ton satellite for SES, which operates the world’s second-largest fleet of commercial communications satellites.

The commercial debut of SpaceX, which offers launch services at a far less expensive price than its competitors, is “really rocking the industry,” SES’s chief technology officer Martin Halliwell, told reporters in Cocoa Beach on Sunday.

“There are a lot of people who hope that SpaceX is going to fail. If you look toward (Europe’s) Ariane, if you look toward (Russia’s) Proton, I think they’re shaking in their shoes. I really do, because if this is a success, the whole industry is going to be turned upside-down,” he said.

“I don’t just mean this one particular launch, but if it now becomes a norm, this is the type of launch vehicle which is being provided, everybody is going to have to look to their cost base and are going to have change their attitude,” Halliwell added.

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About 75 percent of SpaceX’s upcoming launches, a backlog of nearly 50 missions worth about $4 billion, are for commercial customers. Cargo runs to the space station for NASA account for most of the rest.

“Competition is a great for organizations. It keeps them sharp, it keeps people motivated, so this is all a good thing,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told reporters during a prelaunch conference call.

“They may not look at it that way, but hopefully they come to appreciate it in the future,” she said.

Monday’s launch period extends until 6:43 p.m. EST. The Falcon rocket, which consists of a  nine-engine first stage and a single-engine upper-stage, is aiming to release the spacecraft, known as SES-8, at the high end of an elliptical orbit that reaches more than 50,000 miles above Earth, about one-quarter of the way to the moon.

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From there, the spacecraft will fire its own steering rockets to circularize its orbit and drop down to about 24,000 miles, where it will be used to relay television, cable, broadband and other communications services in India, China, Vietnam and other parts of Asia.

“Even with rockets that have flown for a long time and that are considered quite reliable … with any orbital launch, because the passing grade is 100 percent — you can’t issue a recall or a software patch or something, it’s all or nothing — there’s always some risk associated with the flight not working. So we’re very appreciative that SES would place a bet on SpaceX,” Musk said.

Image: The upgraded Falcon 9 awaits launch in Florida. Credit: SpaceX