SpaceX rocket lifts off on first commercial satellite launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Wed Dec 4, 2013 6:46am IST

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - An unmanned Falcon 9 rocket developed by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, blasted off on Tuesday to put its first commercial satellite into orbit, staking a potentially game-changing claim in a global industry worth nearly $190 billion a year.

The 22-story rocket lifted off from its seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 5:41 p.m. EST/2241 GMT.

Two previous launch attempts last week were scuttled by technical glitches, including a last-second abort on Thursday. Engineers later discovered oxygen inside the rocket's ground-based engine igniter system.

Perched on top of the rocket was a 7,000-pound (3,175 kg) communications satellite owned by Luxembourg-based SES S.A. SESFg.LU, which operates a 54-satellite fleet, the world's second-largest.

"I'd like to thank SES for taking a chance on SpaceX," company founder and chief executive Elon Musk posted on Twitter an hour before the launch. "We've given it our all."

About 30 minutes after liftoff, the satellite, known as SES-8 and worth more than $100 million, was in an elliptical orbit that reached more than 50,000 miles (80,000 km) from Earth, about a quarter of the way to the moon.

From there, SES-8 will maneuver itself down to a circular, 22,369-mile (36,000-km) high orbit to provide television, broadband and other communications services to customers in India, China, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia.

The delivery of the SES-8 satellite "confirms the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle delivers to the industry's highest performance standards," Musk said in a statement after the launch.

"We appreciate SES's early confidence in SpaceX and look forward to launching additional SES satellites in the years to come," he said.

SES-8 is the first commercial communications satellite to be launched from Cape Canaveral in four years.

In the 1980s, the United States dominated the commercial launch industry, now worth about $6.5 billion a year, a report by the Satellite Industry Association trade organization showed.

The global satellite industry overall had revenues of nearly $190 billion in 2012, including nearly $90 billion in television services alone, the trade group said.

"It's an extremely important satellite for us," Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of SES, told reporters before the launch.

"We know that as we go forward into these very significant growth markets that it's absolutely critical that we have a cost-effective and efficient way to get to orbit. That's really what SpaceX has brought us," Halliwell said.

Previous SES satellites were launched primarily aboard Russian Proton and European Ariane rockets, which cost far more than the approximately $55 million the company paid for its ride on SpaceX's Falcon booster, he said.

Halliwell would not say exactly how much SpaceX undercut the competition, but did say SES received a discount by agreeing to fly on Falcon 9's first mission to high orbits used by communications satellites.

In addition to a September 29 test flight of an upgraded Falcon 9, older versions of the rocket flew five times successfully, including three missions for NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, which orbits about 250 miles (about 400 km) above Earth.

SpaceX's launch schedule includes nearly 50 missions, worth about $4 billion. About 75 percent of the flights are for commercial customers.

The company needs one more successful launch of its upgraded Falcon rocket to be eligible to compete to carry the U.S. military's largest and most expensive satellites, a market now monopolized by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing (BA.N) and Lockheed Martin (LMT.N).

(Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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