(SpaceX) launched its first Falcon 9 v1.1 mission to geosynchronous transfer orbit Dec. 3, marking the Hawthorne, Calif.-based startup’s entry into the commercial launch market and positioning it to unseat United Launch Alliance (ULA), the - joint venture that launches most , U.S. Air Force and intelligence community missions.
Liftoff occurred at 5:43 p.m. local time from SpaceX Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla. The two-stage, liquid-fueled Falcon 9 sent the. SES-8 satellite on its way to a supersynchronous transfer orbit of 295 km x 80,000 km altitude and an inclination of 20.75 deg. for Luxembourg-based SES, the world’s second-largest commercial fleet operator by revenue.
A little more than one minute into the flight, the Falcon 9 reached Max Q, the point at which mechanical stress on the vehicle peaks due to a combination of the rocket’s velocity and resistance created by Earth’s atmosphere.
At roughly 180 sec. post-launch, the rocket’s nine liquid oxygen/liquid kerosene first-stage engines shut down, followed by first-stage separation. Seconds later the rocket’s new Merlin 1D vacuum engine ignited to bring the satellite into its parking orbit. Following a second burn, the 3,138-kg (6,918-lb.) SES-8 satellite was deployed into its geosynchronous transfer orbit, with SES confirming receipt of telemetry from the spacecraft.
SES-8 will now spend the next several days maneuvering to its final position at 95 deg. east.
The successful Dec. 3 mission follows two earlier launch attempts last week, including a Nov. 28 abort that occurred when oxygen was detected in the ground side igniter fluid on the rocket’s first stage, resulting in a slower-than-expected ramp up in thrust.
A few days later SpaceX founder, CEO and CTO Elon Musk said the rocket’s engines had been cleaned and that the company had replaced a gas generator on the center engine “as a precautionary measure,” according to a Dec. 2 tweet.
A previous launch attempt Nov. 25 was scrubbed owing to pressure fluctuations on the Falcon 9’s first stage liquid oxygen tank.
Accurate orbital insertion of SES-8 is critical to SpaceX, which is counting on three successful Falcon 9 v1.1 missions — including two to be launched consecutively — which are needed to obtain U.S. government certification for launching sensitive national security payloads.
A Sept. 29 debut of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket from the company’s new launch site at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., successfully lofted an experimental Canadian science satellite to low Earth orbit.
The mission demonstrated the rocket’s nine new first-stage Merlin 1D engines in a new “Octaweb” configuration, plus significantly longer fuel tanks and a larger payload fairing. It also affirmed that SpaceX is equipped to meet the terms of a $1.6 billion contract withto launch 20 metric tons of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard its Dragon cargo vessel by the end of 2015.
However, a preliminary test of an innovative reusable-booster concept intended to lower costs showed the need for more work after an uncontrollable spin hampered pre-splashdown braking. In addition, frozen igniter fluid lines were to blame for the failure of an upper-stage restart of the new Merlin 1D vacuum engine needed to loft satellite payloads to geostationary orbit.
According to SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin, the company did not detect the fluid line problem during ground tests because “ambient air kept the lines warm.”
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says the Sept. 29 mission still counts as the first of three required for U.S. Air Force certification. The Air Force, however, has not confirmed this and officials there say they are continuing to analyze data from the mission to determine its eligibility.
SES-8 will be followed closely by another Falcon 9 v1.1 launch to a supersynchronous transfer orbit, this time for Bangkok-based fleet operator Thaicom. SpaceX says the Thaicom 6 spacecraft will be launching to an even higher supersynchronous transfer orbit from the Cape before the end of the year.
With a dozen launches on its manifest next year, Shotwell says the company will be looking for new launch sites and will be investing heavily in production capability. She says SpaceX is currently producing one vehicle per month, but that number is expected to increase to “18 per year in the next couple of quarters.” By the end of 2014, she says SpaceX will produce 24 launch vehicles per year.