Spaceflight Now Home

Commercial launch of SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket a success

Posted: July 14, 2009

Bookmark and Share

A Malaysian satellite rode a Falcon 1 rocket into orbit Monday night, marking the first time the privately-developed booster has successfully launched an operational spacecraft.

File photo of Falcon 1 rocket. Credit: SpaceX
The 70-foot-tall rocket was making its fifth flight. Three of its four previous launches failed, dooming two small military satellites.

But SpaceX, the California-based company that developed the launcher, scored its second straight success Monday, almost nine months after the Falcon 1 first reached orbit last year.

"We nailed the orbit to well within target parameters, pretty much a bullseye," Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, told Spaceflight Now.

Musk confirmed Malaysia's RazakSAT satellite separated from the Falcon 1's upper stage and is communicating with ground controllers.

Monday's launch was the first time the company hauled a customer's satellite into orbit. Last year's success carried only a dummy payload.

The flight began at 0335 GMT Tuesday (11:35 p.m. EDT Monday) with liftoff from SpaceX's launch pad on Omelek Island, a seven-acre strip of land at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

The complex is part of the U.S. Army's Reagan Test Site, a missile range in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Liftoff was delayed more than four hours due to a glitch in the rocket's helium system and passing rain showers.

The two-stage rocket pitched east from the launch pad, accelerating through mostly cloudy skies and past the speed of sound less than one minute into flight.

The first stage's kerosene-fueled main engine shut down on schedule about two-and-a-half minutes after launch. The first stage separated and the second stage's Kestrel engine ignited a few moments later.

The payload fairing was jettisoned just past the three-minute mark in the mission, and the Kestrel engine completed its first burn nine-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

After coasting through space, the Kestrel engine briefly fired again to circularize its orbit.

The 400-pound RazakSAT satellite was deployed nearly one hour after the mission began, ending the Falcon 1's second successful flight.

RazakSAT carries a medium-sized aperture camera with a black-and-white resolution of 8.2 feet and a color resolution of about 16.4 feet, according to ATSB, the Malaysian company that built the satellite.

Flying in an orbit with a low inclination of 9 degrees, RazakSAT will pass over Malaysia up to a dozen times per day, an increase over the coverage of most other satellites.

RazakSAT imagery will be used by researchers, commercial customers and government agencies, according to ATSB.

Applications for the data include agriculture, environmental monitoring, exploration, forestry, mapping, transportation, utilities management, and urban planning.

The six-sided satellite was one of SpaceX's earliest payloads. Standing nearly four feet tall, RazakSAT was originally supposed to launch aboard the Falcon 1's fourth flight.

But Musk vowed to complete a successful test flight of the new rocket before putting the Malaysian satellite on the Falcon 1.

SpaceX will next turn its attention to the maiden launch of the much larger Falcon 9 rocket, a medium-sized booster designed to lift supplies to the international space station.

The Falcon 9 will be based at a Cape Canaveral launch pad now being modified to host the rocket.

Officials say the launcher will be ready for its first flight by the end of this year.

A Falcon 9 test vehicle, partially containing flight hardware, was brought to its Florida launch pad last year and erected for a series of compatibility checks with ground systems.

SpaceX is developing a pressurized cargo carrier called Dragon to fly atop Falcon 9 rockets. The Dragon capsule will deliver cargo to the international space station as part of a contract with NASA.

The next Falcon 1 launch, slated for next year, will be the first flight of an augmented version of the rocket. Called the Falcon 1e, the upgraded booster will feature a more powerful propulsion system to carry twice the payload of the standard Falcon 1.