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SpaceX signs first commercial customer for Falcon Heavy

Posted: May 29, 2012

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SpaceX announced the first commercial contract for the Falcon Heavy rocket Tuesday, unveiling a deal with Intelsat, the world's largest communications satellite operator.

Artist's concept of a Falcon Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX
The company's statement did not say when or where the launch will occur, but one industry source said Intelsat is eyeing 2017 or 2018 for the mission.

Intelsat has not identified a satellite for the launch, and Alex Horwitz, an Intelsat spokesperson, said the company has not decided whether the flight would launch a single or multiple payloads.

The contract's monetary value was also not disclosed, but SpaceX has said the Falcon Heavy would sell for between $80 million and $125 million per flight, about one-third the price of a less powerful United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket.

"SpaceX is very proud to have the confidence of Intelsat, a leader in the satellite communication services industry," said Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO and chief designer. "The Falcon Heavy has more than twice the power of the next largest rocket in the world. With this new vehicle, SpaceX launch systems now cover the entire spectrum of the launch needs for commercial, civil and national security customers."

The Falcon Heavy is designed to haul the largest U.S. government and commercial satellites into orbit, and it could dispatch up to 30,000 pounds of payload on a trajectory to Mars.

Thierry Guillemin, Intelsat's chief technical officer, said Falcon Heavy would need to complete multiple test launches before Intelsat assigns one of its satellites for a flight.

"Intelsat has exacting technical standards and requirements for proven flight heritage for our satellite launches," Guillemin said. "We will work closely with SpaceX as the Falcon Heavy completes rigorous flight tests prior to our future launch requirements."

Powered off the ground by 27 engines, the 227-foot-tall rocket can lift up to 117,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. It is composed of three core stages and a single-engine upper stage based on the Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX is finishing development of the huge Falcon Heavy before shipping the first rocket to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., for liftoff on a test flight in mid-2013.

SpaceX is paying for the demonstration flight in 2013 with internal funding.

"Access to space is essential for commercial operators and we want to support a new entrant with reliable products able to launch large spacecraft into [geosynchronous transfer orbit]," Horwitz said in a statement. "We believe SpaceX should be supported in their effort to develop reliable and powerful launch vehicles."

SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Brost Grantham said the Intelsat mission's launch site has not been determined. The Vandenberg facility under construction for next year's test flight is positioned for launches into polar orbit, while Intelsat and other communications satellite operators deploy spacecraft into orbit over the equator.

SpaceX is considering a former shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center for future Falcon Heavy missions. The huge booster could also lift off from SpaceX's existing Cape Canaveral pad or a potential private launch site in Florida, Texas, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico.