After a week’s delay, SpaceX successfully performed a gorgeous launch into the night sky Sunday, sending its second commercial satellite into orbit in just over a month. The company was hired by the Hong Kong-based satellite operator, AsiasSat, to loft its AsiaSat 6 communications satellite into orbit in a dazzling pre-dawn launch Sunday.
SpaceX postponed the mission more than a week after a failed rocket test in Texas. However, this morning’s Falcon 9 rocket launch at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station went smoothly. 1.3 million pounds of thrust surged the rocket away from Earth’s surface at 1:00 a.m., almost on time after a small weather delay.
The privately-held rocket company has attempted – and successfully completed – 12 for-hire spaceflights since 2010. On schedule, this morning’s payload was deployed 32 minutes after launch.
Intended for stationary orbit over the equator, the AsiaSat 6 will hover 22,300 miles over the 120th meridian east where, for the next 15 years or more, it will transmit telecommunications services and video across China and Southeast Asia. The data the satellite will accommodate will not add to existing services but simply expand capacity. AsiaSat will now have six spacecraft above Earth.
Since January, SpaceX has carried Thaicom 6 aloft, completed three additional commercial satellite missions, and also delivered cargo for the United States’ National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) to the International Space Station. The next cargo launch for SpaceX will be this month, again from Cape Canaveral, a few days after a planned United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V mission. (ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company.)
SpaceX is looking to lower launch costs dramatically, in large part through advanced development of reusable booster engines. It was this technology that was being tested during the failed Aug. 22 McGregor, Texas launch of a three engine, single-stage rocket. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk reported that it was a blocked sensor port that caused the rocket to blow up. A greater number of sensors on the operational rockets of Falcon 9, he said, would have taken care of the same problem should it have occurred. SpaceX nevertheless gave extra attention to “triple-check” the systems before advancing to Sunday’s final launch countdown.
The next launch from SpaceX, sometime later this year, will deliver one of the company’s Dragon cargo capsules, filled with supplies, to the International Space Station. In December of 2010, Dragon became was the first privately operated craft to be successfully recovered from orbit for reuse.
SpaceX has been developing a crewed version of the Dragon capsule since 2006. The billion dollar program is an attempt to satisfy the needs of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program and win a contract lofting astronauts into space and bringing them back to Earth. Although competing for NASA’s attention with other designs from other aerospace companies, the actuality of a crewed, reusable Dragon capsule would fill a gap on the United States’ aerospace scene when the Space Shuttle program was terminated in 2011. Humans would once again travel from the U.S. into orbit and the ISS and back in reusable craft. Such missions from Florida’s Space Coast – by SpaceX or a competitor – could happen in 2017.
By Gregory Baskin