SpaceX Launches Rocket On Third Try

8:32 PM, Dec 3, 2013   |    comments
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Running more than a week late because of technical snags, including a dramatic Thanksgiving Day launchpad abort, SpaceX successfully launched an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket carrying a communications satellite Tuesday, the opening salvo in a closely watched bid to win a share of the commercial launch market with low-cost assembly-line boosters.

Under a clear twilight sky, the 224-foot-tall rocket's nine Merlin 1D first stage engines roared to life with a rush of flame at 5:41 p.m. EST (GMT-5), throttled up to nearly a million pounds of thrust and quickly pushed the booster skyward trailing a brilliant jet of fiery exhaust.

It was only the second flight of an upgraded Falcon 9, featuring stretched propellant tanks, a new flight computer and more efficient engines, and the company's first flight with a non-government commercial satellite on board.

Smoothly accelerating as it consumed its load of liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel, the slender rocket arced away to the east as it climbed out of the dense lower atmosphere, leaving a crackling roar in its wake and putting on a spectacular evening sky show visible for miles around.

Mounted inside a protective nose cone fairing was a 24-transponder GEOStar 2 relay station built by Orbital Sciences Corp. and owned by SES World Skies, a Luxembourg-based company that operates a fleet of more than 50 communications stations.

Martin Halliwell, the chief technology officer of SES, said the company decided to risk a satellite on the first launch of an upgraded Falcon 9 because of a growing need for an alternative, less expensive rocket to offset higher satellite costs and lower revenue streams in emerging markets.

As such, the flight represented a major milestone for both SpaceX and SES, an attempt to shake up the status quo with low-cost rockets built in-house at SpaceX's Hawthorne, Calif., factory with state-of-the-art technology and non-traditional management.

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