SpaceX crests double-digit marker, notching tenth launch this year

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MT LAUREL, New Jersey — SpaceX continues to outperform its launch cadence from earlier years, conducting its tenth successful launch this year with a mission for Intelsat on July 5.

The Falcon 9 mission, which delivered Intelsat’s fourth Epic-series high-throughput satellite, Intelsat-35e, into geostationary transfer orbit, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida at 7:38 p.m. Eastern. It’s SpaceX’s third launch in 13 days.

SpaceX is well on track to hit the target it set last year of 18 launches in a single year. That target moved out of reach when a fueling anomaly destroyed both a Falcon 9 rocket and its satellite payload last summer.

SpaceX did not respond to a SpaceNews inquiry for the number of launches it is pursuing this year, but President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in 2016 that the company was pursuing 18 launches in 2016 and could do around 24 in 2017.

Already behind on its customer backlog, SpaceX had several missions previously slated for 2016 on the docket for this year. Shotwell said in March that the company might use up to six pre-flown first-stage boosters to increase launch cadence and take some of the pressure off production. Two such missions — SES-10 and BulgariaSat-1 — have already occurred, and last month Shotwell hinted that the company might reuse more than six.

By comparison, Evry, France-based Arianespace, SpaceX’s chief competitor for commercial telecommunications satellite launches, is launching 11 to 12 times a year using its fleet of three rockets — the heavy-lift Ariane 5, medium-lift Soyuz and light-lift Vega. One notable difference is Arianespace primarily conducts dual launches with the Ariane 5, the rocket that launches the most telecom satellites in the Arianespace family. Arianespace has launched more satellites to geostationary orbit than SpaceX, but fewer satellites to low-Earth orbit.

Russia has the ability to launch a dozen or more times with Proton doing both government and commercial missions, but has operated at a slower cadence the past few years due to launch failures and this year’s discovery of an incorrect material used in some rocket engines.

United Launch Alliance, SpaceX’s chief competitor for defense missions, regularly conducts around a dozen or more launches per year, but the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture has only performed four missions in 2017 so far.

SpaceX did not recover the first stage booster after launching Intelsat-35e because the 6,760-kilogram (14,900 lbs) satellite required additional fuel to reach its intended orbit. Expendable missions are now a rare occurrence for SpaceX. The company has only conducted three this year.

Intelsat-35e, built by Boeing, carries a mix of wide and spot beams in C-band, and high power wide beams in Ku-band. Luxembourg and McLean, Virginia-based Intelsat plans to use the satellite for direct-to-home television broadcasts, wireless backhaul and internet access to enterprise and mobility customers. The satellite covers the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and large swaths of North and South America.

Intelsat is placing Intelsat-35e at 325 degrees east to replace Intelsat-903, a 15-year old satellite launched on an International Launch Services Proton in 2002. In a July 5 statement, Intelsat said Intelsat-35e is communicating and signalled back to Earth shortly after separation from the Falcon 9’s upper stage. The operator plans to move Intelsat-903 to an unspecified orbital location later this year.

Intelsat has another satellite, Intelsat 37e, projected to launch during the third quarter of this year with Arianespace.