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SpaceX rocket blasts off with world’s first all-electric satellites

March 2, 2015, 9:32 AM UTC
SpaceX Falcon9 blasts off
A SpaceX Falcon9 rocket blasts off the launch pad on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, carrying the NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft that will orbit between Earth and the sun, providing advanced warning of extreme emissions from the sun which can effect power grids and satellites close to earth. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Photograph by Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

A Space Exploration Technologies rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Sunday to put the world’s first all-electric communications satellites into orbit.

The 22-story tall booster soared off its seaside launch pad at 10:50 a.m. EST, the third flight in less than two months for SpaceX, as the privately owned, California-based company is known.

Perched on top of the rocket were a pair of satellites built by Boeing Corp. (BA) and owned by Paris-based Eutelsat Communications and Bermuda-based ABS, whose majority owner is the European private equity firm Permira.

Eutelsat and ABS shared satellite manufacturing and launch costs, a business arrangement spurred by technological innovation.

The satellites launched on Sunday are outfitted with lightweight, all-electric engines, rather than conventional chemical propulsion systems, to reach and maintain orbit.

That enabled two spacecraft to be launched aboard one medium-sized Falcon 9 rocket.

“The value of electrical propulsion is that it allows the satellite operator to need much less fuel than when the satellite has chemical propulsion,” Eutelsat chief executive Michel de Rosen said in an interview before launch.

“You can have a much lighter satellite, so that, in theory, the cost of your launch is much reduced.”

SpaceX, owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk and now backed by Google Inc. (GOOG), turned the theoretical price cuts into reality, breaking what de Rosen calls “a quasi-monopoly” Europe’s Arianespace had on the small satellite launch market.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although SpaceX’s website lists a Falcon 9 launch as costing $61 million.

The disadvantage of electric propulsion is that it will take the satellites months, rather than weeks, to reach their operational orbits about 22,300 miles above Earth, high enough to appear virtually parked over a particular part of the globe.

Eutelsat’s spacecraft will become part of a 35-member network providing a range of mobile, internet, video and other communications services. The new satellite expands the company’s reach into the Americas.

ABS, which currently has six satellites, will position its new spacecraft to also serve customers in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

The companies are partnering for a second pair of satellites that are due to launch aboard another Falcon 9 rocket later this year. SpaceX also flies cargo missions to the International Space Station for NASA and is working on an upgraded spaceship to fly astronauts as well.

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