SpaceX Ready for First Launch to GEO on Monday

SpaceX Ready for First Launch to GEO on Monday

SpaceX is on track for its first attempt to launch a satellite to geostationary orbit (GEO) on Monday, November 25, 2013.  The new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket will launch SES-8, a commercial communications satellite for satellite services provider SES.

The launch will take place from Cape Canaveral, FL, and the launch window opens at 5:37 pm EST.  Weather is forecast to be 80 percent favorable for the launch, which will be webcast on SpaceX’s website.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted today (@elonmusk) that it will be “toughest mission to date.  Requires coast + upper stage restart + going to 80,000 km altitude (~1/4 way to Moon).”

The upper stage restart portion of the mission has been an area of concern since the first launch of this version of the Falcon 9 in September.   During that launch, a second stage restart was tested.  It was not required for the success of that particular mission, which was fortunate because the test failed.   SES and the insurers of the SES-8 satellite needed to be sure SpaceX understood and remedied the problem.   SpaceX reportedly concluded that the problem was frozen fuel lines and has added insulation to avoid a repeat, according to

The Falcon 9 rocket actually gets the satellite only part of the way to GEO, to an orbit called Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).  That elliptical orbit is 295 x 80,000 kilometers.  A separate motor boosts it the rest of the way to GEO, which is about 35,800 km above the equator.  A satellite there rotates at the same rate as the Earth so keeps a fixed position relative to a point on Earth, hence the term geostationary.

The SES-8 launch is very important for SpaceX, which is endeavoring to bring the commercial space launch market back to the United States.  Few commercial launches take place from the United States these days.  The market for launching geostationary satellites like SES-8 is dominated by Russia’s Proton and Europe’s Ariane V, with Russia’s Sea Launch system trying to gain ground.   China also seeks to be a player in this market, but U.S. restrictions on exporting satellites to China that contain any U.S. components sharply limits its success.  The U.S. Atlas V and Delta IV rockets are used almost exclusively for U.S. government satellites largely because they are too costly for most customers.  Lockheed Martin recently signed a contract for a commercial launch for the government of Mexico using the Atlas V, however.  The price was not disclosed.

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