Cape Canaveral, FL (Florida Today) -- A new SpaceX rocket will attempt its "toughest" mission today with atwilight launch of a type of satellite rarely seen around here anymore -one not owned by the U.S. government.
Theplanned 5:37 p.m. liftoff would be the company's first of an upgradedFalcon 9 rocket from Florida, after a test launch in California, and thefirst launch of a commercial communications satellite from CapeCanaveral in four years.
TheFalcon 9 has sent several spacecraft to the International Space Stationabout 250 miles up, but never placed a communications satellite in theorbit where they operate more than 22,000 miles above the equator.
Today'slaunch for Luxembourg-based SES, one of the world's largest operatorsof communications satellites with 54 already in orbit, could establishSpaceX as a lower-cost player able to recapture commercial launches allbut lost to overseas competitors.
"Letme put this very clearly and maybe not too dramatically: The entry ofSpaceX into the commercial market is a game-changer," said MartinHalliwell, chief technology officer for SES. "It's going to really shakethe industry to its roots."
SpaceX,for its part, is grateful SES took a chance on being the Falcon 9'sfirst customer to a geostationary orbit, where satellites match thespeed of Earth's rotation and so appear from the ground to stay in afixed location.
"Thislaunch is obviously very important to the future of SpaceX," CEO ElonMusk told reporters at a pre-launch reception Sunday at Marlins GoodTimes Bar & Grill on the Cocoa Beach Pier, before taking his kids toDisney World. "We're very appreciative that SES would place a bet onSpaceX here."
Earlier on Twitter, Musk said the upcoming flight "will be toughest mission to date."
Thelaunch of the SES-8 satellite will be the second flight of the upgradedFalcon 9, known as "version 1.1," which stands 224 feet tall and firesMerlin engines that generate 1.3 million pounds of thrust at liftoff,among other changes.
ASept. 29 test flight in California completed its mission, but anoptional restart of the rocket's upper stage engine - a maneuvernecessary for this mission - failed.
SpaceX determined that an igniter line froze, and believes added insulation will prevent a repeat.
Musk and Halliwell both expressed strong confidence that the problem has been resolved.
"There'sno stone that hasn't been turned over at least twice to maximize thepossibility of success," said Musk, noting there is still risk given therocket is launching for just the second time. "The rest will be up tofate."
Unlike theflight in California, SpaceX will not attempt to recover the Falcon 9booster. With the help of a ship in the Atlantic, data on the booster'satmospheric re-entry will be collected to support future recoveryattempts, possibly as soon as the next launch from Cape Canaveral,planned before Christmas.
SESwould not disclose the cost of this launch, but said it is receiving adiscount as the first to go with Falcon 9 for this type of mission,which SpaceX advertises online for $56.5 million.
SESlast launched from the Cape in 2007 on an Atlas V, and Halliwell saidit was the cost of available rockets, not the Cape nor its facilities,that had led the company to choose European or Russian launch vehiclesinstead.
He saidSpaceX's lower costs were enabling SES to pursue emerging markets thatrequire complex satellites to provide a variety of services, includingTV channels and broadband Internet, but generate lower revenues thanmore developed markets.
"Ifyou then put that complex, expensive satellite on top of a veryexpensive launch vehicle, than the entire business case starts to becomeunraveled," he said.
Theroughly 7,000-pound SES-8 satellite, built by Orbital Sciences Corp.,is expected to serve Southeast Asia for at least 15 years, beaming TVchannels directly to homes in India, Vietnam and other countries.
It will fly close to another SES-owned satellite, and serve as a bridge to a larger one planned to serve the same region.
"It's an extremely important satellite for us," Halliwell said. "This is a big, big growth market for us."
SES already has three more launches under contract with SpaceX.
SaidHalliwell: "I think this is (the) first of many, many successfullaunches that we're going to have out of the Cape here, and I think it'sgoing to be very good for the entire district."