SpaceX launches Falcon 9, records its 15th mission of the year
Maintaining a brisk flight rate three days after its last launch, SpaceX sent a Falcon 9 booster powered by a reused first stage into orbit Wednesday evening from Florida with an Airbus-built communications satellite for SES and EchoStar.
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The successful launch placed the 5.7-ton (5.2-metric ton) satellite in a “supersynchronous” orbit arcing thousands of miles above Earth, and the Falcon 9’s first stage returned to landing on a football field-sized barge holding position around 200 miles (300 kilometers) east of Cape Canaveral.
Wednesday’s mission was the 15th Falcon 9 flight of the year, and the second in three days, coming on the heels of a launch Monday from California’s Central Coast.
Owned by SES, the payload carried into orbit Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center will broadcast television programming, relay video for cable outlets, and support data services over the Americas during a mission expected to last at least 15 years.
Luxembourg-based SES and Colorado-headquartered EchoStar Corp. will share the satellite’s communications capacity in a “condosat” arrangement announced in 2014. SES calls its portion of the spacecraft SES 11, and EchoStar named the mission EchoStar 105.
The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from pad 39A at the Florida spaceport at 6:53 p.m. EDT (2253 GMT) Wednesday after a textbook countdown, climbed into a clear evening sky just before sunset and turned on an easterly heading as it soared into the stratosphere.
Nine Merlin 1D engines generated 1.7 million pounds of window-rattling thrust as the Falcon 9 rocket departed the Kennedy Space Center, chugging a super-chilled, densified mixture of RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen.
The first stage’s nine main engines shut down around two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. Moments later, the 14-story booster dropped away from the Falcon 9’s second stage, then flipped around to fly tail first, setting up for a scorching re-entry from an altitude of 74 miles (119 kilometers).
Grid fins unfurled from the cigar-shaped booster to help guide it back to Earth, and three of the first stage engines reignited for an entry burn, followed by a final braking maneuver with one of the Merlin engines as it approached SpaceX’s drone ship, dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You.”
Four landing legs made of carbon fiber and aluminum honeycomb extended just before the rocket touched down on the floating barge in rough seas, notching the 18th intact recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage booster in 23 tries.
The landing at sea completed a seemingly flawless re-flight for the first stage booster, which logged its first mission in February sending a Dragon supply ship on a trajectory toward the International Space Station, then returned to Cape Canaveral for recovery.
Going into Wednesday’s flight, SES had experience launching a satellite on a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster. The global satellite operator put one of its payloads on the first Falcon 9 launch with a reused first stage March 30, making history and going far in demonstrating SpaceX’s concept for reusing rocket hardware, a capability the company says will slash the cost of spaceflight.
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