Falcon 9 Gets First Mission to Geostationary Orbit with SES Satellite Launch

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WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) will loft the SES-8 commercial telecommunications satellite in early 2013 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in what will be its first mission to geostationary orbit, the destination of most commercial spacecraft, SpaceX and satellite owner SES announced March 14.

For Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, the contract is an endorsement by an established satellite fleet operator that has long been known for its conservatism with respect to new rocket and satellite technology.

“After extensive due diligence of SpaceX’s technical and operational expertise, we feel comfortable entrusting SpaceX with one of our satellites, thereby encouraging diversity in the launch vehicle sector and fostering entrepreneurial spirit in the space industry,” Romain Bausch, chief executive of Luxembourg-based SES, said in a March 14 statement. “Falcon 9 ideally complements our roster of Ariane 5 and Proton boosters, as well as our framework launch understanding with Sea Launch.”

The two companies said the contract includes an option for a second launch.

“The SES deal shows that even the most conservative commercial or government customers can have confidence flying their satellites on the Falcon 9 rocket,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a statement.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is building SES-8. The satellite is expected to provide 5 kilowatts of power to its payload of 33 Ku-band transponders, and will be operated at SES’s 95 degrees east orbital slot.

SES said in February it expects to spend 160 million euros ($216 million) on SES-8, a figure that includes the satellite’s construction, launch and first year of insurance. The company said it wanted the satellite launched as quickly as possible to fill unmet demand for direct broadcast satellite capacity, particularly in India. SES’s current satellite at the 95 degrees east slot, NSS-6, is more than 95 percent filled, SES said.

SES officials said their contract with SpaceX includes a backup launch agreement with International Launch Services of Reston, Va., which markets the Russian Proton heavy-lift vehicle; and the Arianespace consortium of Evry, France, which operates the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and, starting late this year, a Europeanized version of Russia’s Soyuz medium-lift vehicle.

SES-8 is expected to weigh around 3,600 kilograms at launch and would be too heavy for the Europeanized Soyuz. Flying as a secondary payload on an Ariane 5, or being a solo passenger aboard a Proton, likely would be substantially more expensive for SES than the Falcon 9.

In a panel discussion at the Satellite 2011 conference here March 15, David McGlade, chief executive of Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat, told Bausch that selecting SpaceX at this time was a daring move.

“We’re a bit more conservative at Intelsat, so we’ll let you take the lead on it,” McGlade told Bausch, who responded: “Yes, but you should place your order now.”

SES officials said SpaceX is required to perform successful launches of an upgraded Falcon 9 engine, and of a new, wider payload fairing, before the SES-8 launch as a condition of the contract.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell confirmed during the conference March 15 that SpaceX has accepted these conditions and will fly the specified hardware in advance of the SES satellite.