Wednesday, May 30, 2012

SpaceX Signs First Customer to Heavy Lift Falcon Rocket

SpaceX Signs its First Customer - The Commercial Exploitation of Space Has Started

Artist's rendering of SpaceX's planned heavy-lift Falcon rocket. Credit: SpaceX 
Space Exploration Technologies extended its winning streak on Tuesday, announcing it landed its first customer for the planned Falcon Heavy rocket.

The customer is Intelsat, one of the granddaddies of the space age and the leading provider of satellite services worldwide.

Tuesday's announcement follows the company's so-far successful test flight of a Dragon cargo capsule, which reached the International Space Station on Friday following launch last Tuesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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Dragon, the first privately owned vessel to reach the station, is scheduled to leave on Thursday and splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California later that day.

The trial run clears the company, also known as SpaceX, to begin flying NASA cargo to the station under a 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract. The company also holds more than two dozen other contracts for Falcon 9 flights.

SpaceX is building a new launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to fly Falcon Heavy, which is expected to be able to carry about twice as much payload into orbit as currently available rockets. It also plans to fly Falcon Heavy from Cape Canaveral.

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"Our support of successful new entrants to the commercial launch industry reduces risk in our business model," Intelsat chief technical officer Thierry Guillemin said in a statement. "We will work closely with SpaceX as the Falcon Heavy completes rigorous flight tests prior to our future launch requirements," he said.

Falcon Heavy is comprised of a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket with two additional Falcon 9 first-stage rockets attached alongside the core vehicle. The configuration is similar to how the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters were mounted alongside the external fuel tank.

The heavy-lift version of the Falcon rocket is designed to put about 117,000 pounds (nearly 60 tons) into orbit -- about twice as much as what the shuttles could carry and more than double what the biggest U.S. expendable rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy, can carry.

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SpaceX has said launch costs for Falcon Heavy will be about $100 million for commercial customers. The Air Force pays more than four times that amount for Delta 4 Heavy flights.

Falcon Heavy, like the Falcon 9, also is being designed to meet NASA's standards for flying humans.

The National Space Society in September published an interesting analysis on possible implications of Falcon Heavy on the current U.S. human space exploration initiative. In addition to supporting the space station, NASA is working on a shuttle-derived heavy-lift rocket and a deep-space capsule for missions to an asteroid, the moon, Mars and other destinations beyond the station's 240-mile-high orbit.

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