A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Dec. 3, 2013, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rocket, carrying a telecommunications satellite, lifted off after being delayed for several days.(Photo: Craig Bailey, Florida Today)via USA TODAY
James Dean, Florida Today, USA TODAY
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The bone-chilling cold sweeping across the USA did not affect SpaceX's latest launch, which lifted off on schedule at 5:06 p.m. ET Monday.
The weather was chilly, gusty and cloudy at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but winds were not strong enough to ground the rocket. About 30 minutes after liftoff, a Thai broadcasting satellite was successfully deployed.
The private space transport company's launch signaled its arrival as a competitor in the market for launches of commercial satellites, which the United States mostly has lost to competitors overseas. This successful third flight should certify SpaceX's upgraded Falcon 9 rocket as eligible to compete for launches of the Department of Defense's national security missions and NASA's high-value science satellites.
Now, only United Launch Alliance is certified to fly those missions on Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program is working to introduce competition in hopes of lowering launch costs.
"Competition for EELV launches benefits both the Air Force and the American taxpayer," SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin said. "SpaceX greatly appreciates the Air Force's ongoing support throughout the certification process and we look forward to providing the U.S. with highly reliable launch services for national security satellites."
The Air Force has not yet signed off on the first two launches of Falcon 9 "version 1.1," which at 224 feet is taller and equipped with more powerful Merlin engines, among other changes, than the rocket that launched three cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.
Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX believes that both a Sept. 29 test flight from California and a Dec. 3 launch from Cape Canaveral of a communications satellite for Luxembourg-based SES met all requirements.
The latter was SpaceX's first launch to deliver a commercial satellite to a geostationary orbit 22,300 miles over the equator, the same type of orbit planned for the satellite liftoff Monday for Thaicom Plc.
"We will observe the upcoming Thaicom launch and evaluate the flight data against the criteria agreed to by SpaceX," said Maj. Eric Badger, an Air Force spokesman.
It could be months before the first three missions are evaluated and certification is achieved. Assuming that happens in the near future, Badger said the first potential Air Force mission that SpaceX could win would be awarded in the 2015 budget year for a planned 2017 launch.
After four years with no commercial satellite launches from Cape Canaveral, Monday's mission is the second in a month from SpaceX
The Thaicom 6 satellite is Thaicom's third in orbit.
Weighing about 7,300 pounds at liftoff and designed to last 15 years, the spacecraft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. will provide high-definition television service to parts of Southeast Asia and Africa.