PARIS — A Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 3 successfully placed a telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit in a launch that invests SpaceX with the long-anticipated credibility it will now use to attack the global commercial market.
The launch, for satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, placed the 3,138-kilogram SES-8 satellite into a supersynchronous transfer orbit with a target perigee of 295 kilometers and an apogee of 80,000 kilometers.
SpaceX and SES confirmed the satellite was correctly separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage into the designated orbit and that the satellite was sending signals to ground stations.
The satellite will use its own power in the coming days to raise the perigee and lower the apogee to arrive at a circular orbit about 36,000 kilometers over the equator. SES-8, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., will operate at 95 degrees east, delivering direct-to-home television broadcasts to India and Southeast Asia.
After years of braggadocio and vows that it will overturn the established commercial launch market, SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., now can brandish as its business card a successful mission for the world’s second-largest satellite fleet operator.
The hope surrounding SpaceX and its upgraded Falcon 9 has already swelled the company’s backlog to around $500 million in commercial geostationary satellites despite the company’s lack of a track record in commercial launches.
The Dec. 3 flight, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., was Falcon 9’s first mission to geostationary transfer orbit, and only the second flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 variant. Luxembourg-based SES had nonetheless maintained the booking despite several months of delays and the fact that the precursor flight, in late September, was unable to demonstrate the upper-stage reignition that was needed for the SES-8 launch.
SES Chief Technical Officer Martin Halliwell gave a ringing endorsement of SpaceX, its rocket and its way of handling customers during a Nov. 24 briefing and said SES is satisfied that the Falcon 9 is ready for flight. Halliwell said the rest of the commercial satellite industry was watching the launch, which if successful would shake the industry “to its roots.”
One of the closest watchers in that industry was the Arianespace consortium of Europe, whose Ariane 5 rocket carries one large and one smaller telecommunications satellite together to orbit together.
Arianespace’s main competition in recent years has been for the heavier satellites.
With SpaceX, Arianespace now faces a competitor for the lighter spacecraft as well. Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel, in a Nov. 25 interview with Les Echos, a French financial newspaper, credited the promise of SpaceX’s relatively low prices with stimulating the smaller end of the telecommunications satellite market.
Israel said “at least 15” small geostationary orbit satellites will be ordered in the next 12 to 18 months, and that it is here that Arianespace and SpaceX will go head to head for market share.