3 December 2013
Last updated at 23:35
The US SpaceX company has announced its intention to take a big slice of the market for launching the world’s TV and telecoms satellites.
The California outfit has just launched a new platform for satellite operator SES to serve its growing customer base in India and South East Asia.
It is the first time SpaceX has put a satellite in a geostationary transfer orbit, far above the Earth.
The launch took place at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
It came at the third time of asking, after two previous launch attempts in recent days had been thwarted by technical glitches.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket got up off the pad at 17:41 local time (22:41 GMT) and released the SES-8 platform on its planned trajectory some 33 minutes later.
The commercial market for launching telecoms spacecraft is tightly contested, but has become dominated by just a few companies companies – notably, Europe’s Arianespace, which flies the Ariane 5, and International Launch Services (ILS), which markets Russia’s Proton vehicle.
SpaceX is promising to substantially undercut the existing players on price, and SES, the world’s second largest telecoms satellite operator, believes the incumbents had better take note of the California company’s capability.
“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.
The flight from Cape Canaveral was the seventh mission to date for a Falcon 9.
All previous ascents had gone to low orbits just a few hundred km above the Earth. This has been work done mostly for the US space agency (Nasa), to keep the space station stocked with supplies.
For the latest outing, on the other hand, the Falcon was aiming to put the SES-8 satellite into a so-called supersynchronous transfer orbit – an elliptical path that runs out from about 300km to 80,000km from the Earth. It required the Falcon shut down its upper-stage for 18 minutes during the flight and then re-ignite it briefly to complete the orbit insertion properly – a procedure that failed on a demonstration mission in September.
This time, however, the re-ignition was completed as planned.
SES-8, with its own propulsion system, must now circularise its orbit and move itself to a “stationary” position some 36,000km above the equator at 95 degrees East.
“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 a 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.”
SES, which is based in Betzdorf, Luxembourg, is the world’s second largest fixed satellite services provider.
It already relays more than 6,000 TV stations on its 50-plus satellites in orbit. The new 3.2-tonne SES-8 will be focussed on delivering yet more capability in one of the operator’s key growth regions.
SpaceX has a backlog of customers waiting for an opportunity to launch on a Falcon.
Its manifest, which is approaching 50 flights, represents about $4bn in contracts.
A good chunk of these are Nasa space station sorties, but a sizeable segment also now includes commercial customers like SES who have been drawn to SpaceX’s price-competitive offering.
The interest means SpaceX is having to ramp up production of its Falcon.
“We have been investing,” explained Gwynne Shotwell, the SpaceX president and chief operating officer.
“Right now, we’re at about a vehicle per month production rate. We’ll be at 18 per year in the next couple of quarters, and by the end of next year we’ll be at a rate of 24 a year, or two a month.”
This calls for rapid fabrication of Merlin engines – the kerosene/liquid-oxygen power units that give the Falcon its thrust. Each rocket needs 10 Merlins – nine on the lower stage, one on the upper stage.
Europe’s launcher industry is already taking steps to try to protect Ariane’s market share. These steps involve boosting the performance of the existing rocket design, and starting work on a new Ariane 6 variant that can be made for substantially lower cost.
Climb to orbit: The Falcon heads out over the Atlantic from Cape Canaveral