SpaceX successfully launches debut Falcon 9 v1.1

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SpaceX have enjoyed a huge success via the launch the first flight of its new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on Sunday, carrying an array of payloads including Canada’s CASSIOPE technology demonstration satellite. Liftoff took place from Vandenberg Air Force Base at the start of a three-hour window that opened at 09:00 local time (16:00 UTC).


Big Day for SpaceX:

The Falcon 9 v1.1 is a replacement for the original Falcon 9 – retrospectively called the v1.0.

It features stretched first and second stages, with a new engine arrangement on the first stage. Nine Merlin-1D engines, arranged in an octagonal pattern replace the square pattern of Merlin-1C engines flown on earlier missions. The launch was the eleventh flight of a Falcon rocket, the sixth Falcon 9 launch, and the maiden flight of the v1.1 configuration.

Sunday’s launch was also the first Falcon 9 mission to make use of a payload fairing, since all previous missions have carried Dragon spacecraft – or in the case of the maiden flight a boilerplate Dragon spacecraft – which do not require encapsulation.

The first Falcon 9 did sport a payload fairing when it was erected at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 in January 2009 for facilities checkout, however this was replaced by the Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit, a mockup Dragon spacecraft, before the launch took place in June 2010.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 is, like its predecessor, a two-stage rocket. The first stage, which has been stretched compared to earlier flights, is equipped with nine Merlin engines, while the second stage features a single Merlin.

Z741The first stage engines, Merlin-1Ds, are arranged in an octagonal formation which SpaceX describes as an “octaweb”, with eight outboard engines clustered around a central inboard engine.

The Merlin-1D provides greater performance than the Merlin-1C, and is also cheaper and more efficient for SpaceX to manufacture.

The second stage, which features a single Merlin Vacuum engine, has also been stretched. Both stages are fuelled by RP-1 propellant, which is oxidized by liquid oxygen. The structure of the two stages is comprised of an aluminum-lithium alloy, with common tooling used to manufacture them.

The stages are connected by a carbon composite interstage, which remains attached to the first stage, with pneumatic actuators used to effect stage separation.

Z19The payload fairing is 13.1 meters (43 feet) long, with a diameter of 5.2 meters (17 feet). A carbon fiber composite structure, it separates into two halves by means of pneumatic actuators similar in design to those used for staging. Fourteen latches hold the two halves of the faring together during ascent.

At 68.4 meters (224 feet) in length, the Falcon 9 v1.1 is longer than the v1.0. Its payload capacity has also been increased to 13,150 kilograms (28,990 lb) to low Earth orbit or 4,850 kg (10,690 lb) to geosynchronous transfer orbit. All major components, including its engines, were produced in-house by SpaceX.

In the previous five Falcon 9 launches, the primary payloads were all delivered as planned into their target orbits. The fourth launch, however, was partially unsuccessful as a first stage engine failure left it unable to deliver its secondary payload – an Orbcomm satellite – into its target orbit. As a result of this, the Orbcomm spacecraft was declared a total loss and quickly decayed from orbit.

Z93CASSIOPE’s launch had been expected to occur earlier in the month, with launch pencilled in for 14 September.

This was delayed after the static firing needed to be reattempted, while missile testing at Vandenberg precluded any launch opportunities in the following two weeks. Vandenberg supported successful tests of the Minuteman III missile on 22 and 26 September, flying from silos 10 and 09 respectively.

The Falcon 9 was powered up thirteen and a half hours before liftoff, with CASSIOPE’s controllers giving approval to proceed with the launch by the thirteen hour mark.

Oxidizer tanking began around three hours and 50 minutes ahead of the planned launch, with propellant loading ten minutes afterwards. Propellant and initial oxidizer loading was complete by the three hour, 15 minute mark; however oxidizer loading continued at a slow rate until about three minutes before launch, with the tanks topped off to replace the oxidizer as it evaporated and was vented from the rocket.

The terminal phase of the countdown, controlled by computers on the ground and aboard the rocket, began at T-10 minutes.

Z65 (1)First stage engine cooldown began around nine minutes before launch, with the rocket’s flight computer aligned at T-6 minutes. Around four and a half minutes before launch the rocket was transfer to internal power, with the flight termination system switching to internal power at T-3 minutes, at which point it will also be armed.

In the event of the rocket going off course or out of control, the flight termination system would have been used to execute a self-destruct command.

Two and a half minutes before launch the Launch Director confirmed that he is go to proceed with the launch, with the range giving its final clearance half a minute later. Around this time a test of the second stage thrust vector control was performed.

When the count reached the T-1 minute mark the launch pad deluge, or “Niagara” system activated, and the onboard computer commanded to begin the final steps for launch. Oxidizer topping ended and at T-40 seconds the vehicle’s tanks were pressurized.

Z612The first stage engines ignited three seconds ahead of the planned T-0, building up thrust until the clock reached zero, at which point the rocket’s onboard computer commanded the pad to release it.

Falcon ascended vertically at first, before beginning roll, pitch and yaw maneuver to attain the proper launch azimuth and angle of attack for its ascent to orbit.

Flying almost due south from Vandenberg the Falcon passed through the sound barrier 70 seconds after liftoff, experiencing the area of maximum dynamic pressure eight seconds later.

As it approached the end of first stage flight, the engines throttled down, with two outboard engines cutting off entirely, in order to limit acceleration in the final seconds of the burn. The first stage’s first burn concluded two minutes and forty-three seconds into the flight with main engine cutoff, or MECO.

Seven seconds later the first stage separated and fell away from the vehicle, with ignition of the second stage occurring approximately seven seconds after staging. Only one second stage burn was in the planning for Sunday’s mission.

Z8Forty seconds after the second stage ignited, the payload fairing separated from the nose of the rocket, exposing the satellites aboard to space for the first time. The fairing is present on the vehicle to protect the payload from aerodynamic forces during launch, as well as from contamination by airborne particles. Following a five-minute, 57-second burn, the second stage cut off.

As the primary payload, CASSIOPE was the first spacecraft to be deployed, with spacecraft separation scheduled for fourteen minutes and fifteen seconds after launch. Confirmation was not immediately forthcoming, until L2 sources provided the good news of a healthy satellite on orbit.

Three and a half minutes later POPACS was released, with the two CUSat spacecraft following two minutes and forty seconds afterwards. DANDE was the final spacecraft to separate from the second stage when it is ejected 60 seconds after CUSat.

A different timeline included by SpaceX in the same document puts some of the flight events at slightly different times; with stage separation occurring two seconds earlier and second stage ignition a second earlier. In this timeline, the second stage burn was timetabled to last six minutes and 17 seconds, and CASSIOPE was to separate a second earlier than in the other timeline.

The target orbit for Sunday’s launch was a perigee of 325 kilometers (202 statute miles, 176 nautical miles), an apogee of 1,500 kilometers (930 statute miles, 810 nautical miles), and an inclination of 80 degrees.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Following first stage separation, SpaceX noted they intend to conduct a recovery demonstration as part of its plans to develop a reusable Falcon 9 in the future. As it falls towards the Pacific, three first stage engines will restart to slow the vehicle, with a second test involving a single engine planned for shortly before impact.

The MV American Islander, of the American Marine Corporation, is present in the Pacific Ocean to attempt recovery of the stage should it land intact, and to tow it back to port, however the stage is not expected to be recoverable.

American Islander, which was built by Bender Marine and launched in 1970, was the recovery ship for all three Dragon spacecraft to visit the International Space Station – it is unclear which ship recovered the Dragon C1 spacecraft launched in 2010.

On some previous Falcon 9 launches SpaceX has attempted to use NASA’s MV Freedom Star and MV Liberty Star – vessels originally used to recover the Space Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters – to recover the first stage via parachute, however no attempt to date has been successful.

The primary payload for Sunday’s launch was the Canadian Space Agency’s Cascade SmallSat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer, or CASSIOPE. Constructed by MDA Corporation based on a MAC-200 bus provided by Magellan Aerospace, the 500-kilogram (1,100 lb) spacecraft will be used for a dual-purpose technology demonstration and scientific research mission.

Z88CASSIOPE has a hexagonal shape, measuring 1.80 meters (5.9 feet) across and 1.25 meters (4.1 ft) in length, with three-axis control provided by four momentum wheels and three magnetorquers acting on attitude data from two magnetometers, six sun sensors and two star trackers.

An s-band downlink will transmit data from the satellite to the ground at four megabits per second. The satellite has a design life of two years.

From a scientific perspective, CASSIOPE’s primary experiment is the Enhanced Polar Outflow Probe (ePOP). Consisting of eight separate instruments, ePOP is designed to conduct ionospheric research.

The Fast Auroral Imager (FAI) consists of two cameras operated by a single control unit. One camera operates at a frequency of 0.63 microns, at the red end of the visible spectrum, while the other operates in the near-infrared between 0.65 and 1.1 microns. The cameras will provide simultaneous visible-light and infrared images of the aurora from above.

The Imaging and Rapid-Scanning Ion Mass Spectrometer, IRM, is a mass spectrometer which will be used to study the composition of ions, with energy of between 0.1 and 100 electronvolts. Designed to provide three-dimensional coverage it is mounted on an 88 centimeter (2.9 foot) long boom on the side of the spacecraft. The instrument is derived from the Thermal Plasma Analyzer flown on Japan’s failed Nozomi spacecraft; both TPA and IRM were manufactured by the University of Calgary.

CASSIOPE also carries a Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS), which will be used to study the mass composition of neutral particles. Provided by JAXA, the spectrometer will study particles with atomic masses of less than 40u. After ionizing samples by means of electron bombardment, particles will be accelerated through a magnetic field to separate out different masses, which will be deflected by different angles.

Z57The Radio Receiver Instrument (RRI) consists of four antennae to monitor radio waves at frequencies lower than 18 megahertz. By studying the propagation of waves through the ionosphere scientists hope to learn about its structure and density, and how particles and waves interact in ionospheric regions.

The United States Naval Research Laboratory’s Coherent Electromagnetic Radiation Tomography (CER) also uses radio waves to study the ionosphere. It will transmit three beacon signals at frequencies of 150 megahertz, 400 megahertz and 1.067 gigahertz. Fourteen ground stations will monitor the beacons as the spacecraft passes overhead, allowing a map to be produced showing how the signals are affected by passing through different parts of the ionosphere.

A pair of triaxial magnetometers, mounted at two points along an 80-centimetre (2.6-foot) boom make up the Magnetic Field Instrument, or MGF. It will be used to provide highly accurate measurements of currents in the ionosphere, particularly in polar regions. It will take 160 measurements per second along each axis.

The Suprathermal Electron Imager, SEI, builds upon research conducted by the GEODESIC experiment launched in February 2000 aboard a Black Brant XII sounding rocket from Launch Complex 4 at the Poker Flat Research Range. SEI will measure the energy and angle of incidence of electrons at energies between 1 and 200 eV, with the aid of a charge-coupled device (CCD).

It is hoped the SEI will provide a greater understanding of the polar wind, an outflow from the polar magnetosphere which has previously been studied by sounding rocket missions and NASA’s Dynamics Explorer satellites which launched in 1981.

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To support observations, the GPS Attitude and Positioning Experiment (GAP) is intended to provide scientists with accurate information on the satellite’s location and orientation when data was acquired. Consisting of five receivers for signals broadcast by the US Air Force’s Global Positioning System satellites in Medium Earth orbit, GAP will serve two purposes.

One of the sensors will be mounted in the experimental part of the satellite, studying the occultation of GPS signals as they pass through the ionosphere, while the other four will be used to determine the satellite’s location.

The primary technology experiment on CASSIOPE is Cascade Experimental (CX), a prototype store-dump communications system which MDA hope will lead to a network of commercial communications satellites, marketed as a “space courier” service to relay digital data packets.

Z7On the CASSIOPE mission, Cascade will be used to store data from the scientific payload and subsequently relay it to the ground. CX will transmit in the Ka-band, at a rate of 300 megabits per second. Operational Cascade spacecraft will be operated by MDA’s Cascade Data Services subsidiary.

The mission’s other demonstration objective is to flight-qualify the MAC-200 bus, which was developed from the MAC-100 platform flown as the CSA’s SciSat-1 spacecraft. That spacecraft, which was launched by a Pegasus-XL in 2003, is still operational despite having only been designed for a two year mission.

The Polar Orbiting Passive Atmospheric Calibration Spheres, or POPACS, are three inert spherical masses which will be placed into orbit to study the density of the Earth’s atmosphere, and how it is affected by solar activity, as their orbits slowly decay.

The three spheres, which have radii of five centimeters (2 inches) and masses of 1.0, 1.5 and 2.0 kilograms (2.2, 3.3 and 4.4 pounds) will be deployed by a three-unit CubeSat that separates into four sections to release the spheres. The spheres, which are a joint venture between Utah State University, Drexel University, Gil Moore and Planetary Systems Corporation, are expected to remain in orbit for 15 years.

Three spacecraft for the US Air Force’s University Nanosatellite Program will be aboard the rocket. The Nanosat-4 payload consists of two spacecraft – CUSat-1 and 2 – built and operated by Cornell University. The satellites will test a GPS-based relative navigation system; perform stationkeeping via microthrusters and imaging each other.

The CUSat spacecraft were shortlisted for launch as part of the Operationally Responsive Space Office’s Jumpstart program in 2008, but lost out to the Trailblazer satellite which was subsequently lost in a launch failure.

Cornell hope that CUSat will demonstrate their differential GPS system’s accuracy to within ten centimeters. Expected to operate for several years, the spacecraft will also be used for observations of the Earth, Moon, and comet C/2012 S1 which is expected to be visible from Earth with the naked eye in December.

The other University Nanosatellite payload, Nanosat-5, is the Drag and Atmospheric Neutral Density Explorer, or DANDE. A spherical satellite produced by the University of Colorado at Boulder, this 50-kilogram (110 lb) satellite will take in-situ atmospheric density and aeronomy data. The satellite carries two scientific instruments – a neutral mass spectrometer will be used to calculate the abundances of particles in DANDE’s orbit, and hence the atmospheric density, while accelerometers will be used to calculate the drag acting upon the spacecraft based on the calculated density.

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DANDE was attached to the Falcon 9 by means of a Lightband Adaptor Bracket, which separated along with the payload and only be jettisoned around two weeks after launch when the spacecraft begins commissioning. Prior to jettisoning the adaptor, the spacecraft will operate in safe mode while it charges its batteries and is checked out by controllers.

Around 25 days after launch, DANDE will begin science operations, collecting and storing data for transmission to the ground. During science operations, controllers will be unable to communicate with the satellite, so operations may be suspended as the spacecraft passes over its ground stations in order to allow data to be downloaded and commands to be uplinked. DANDE is expected to operate for around 18 months before its communications subsystem succumbs to the space environment.

According to some reports, Stanford University’s SNAPS satellite, a quarter-unit CubeSat intended to image the deployment of the Falcon 9’s other payloads, was also aboard the rocket. SpaceX has not mentioned this spacecraft in their documentation for the launch, however, so it is unclear whether it will be aboard the rocket or not.

Z52Sunday’s launch took place from Space Launch Complex 4E at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Originally constructed in the early 1960s as one of four West Coast Atlas-Agena launch pads at the US Navy’s Point Arguello launch site, the pad became part of Vandenberg Air Force Base when the two adjacent facilities were merged in mid-1964.

Space Launch Complex 4 was originally Launch Complex 2 at Arguello. Following the merger it became known as PALC-2, or Point Arguello Launch Complex 2, before being redesignated SLC-4 in 1966 when most of Vandenberg’s orbital launch complexes were renamed.

SLC-4 consisted of two launch pads, SLC-4W and 4E – formerly LC-2-3 and LC-2-4 – while Launch Complex 1, Point Arguello’s other Atlas launch complex, was redesignated Space Launch Complex 3. The site’s other orbital launch pad – Launch Complex D used by Scout rockets – was renamed Space Launch Complex 5.

Of the former Point Arguello launch pads other than SLC-4E, only Space Launch Complex 3E – formerly LC-1-2 – is still in use. The only one of the four Atlas launch pads to support that type of rocket exclusively throughout its career, SLC-3E is now used by United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Space Launch Complex 5 has been dismantled and relocated to Launch Complex 41 at the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Hawaii, where it is expected to support launches of the SPARK, or Super Strypi, rocket starting next year.

Throughout its history, Space Launch Complex 4 has been closely associated with the National Reconnaissance Office’s classified reconnaissance satellites. In total, 161 launches have occurred from SLC-4 prior to the Falcon 9’s launch, 150 of which have carried NRO payloads. The only launch from SLC-4E not to carry an NRO satellite occurred in April 1965 with SNAPSHOT. The other unclassified launches, which were made from SLC-4W, were the last ten launches from that pad – most of which carried weather satellites.

The first launch from what would become Space Launch Complex 4W occurred on 12 July 1963, with an Atlas LV-3 Agena-D placing the first KH-7 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellite into orbit. On 14 August 1964, shortly after becoming part of Vandenberg, the first launch was made from LC-2-4, or SLC-4E. Like the first launch from its sister pad, an Atlas LV-3 Agena-D was used to orbit a KH-7 spacecraft.

During its time as an Atlas-Agena launch site, SLC-4 was used almost exclusively for KH-7 launches. The only exception was an Atlas SLV-3 Agena-D launched from SLC-4E on 3 April 1965 with a unique technology demonstration payload. The Space Nuclear Auxiliary Power Shot (SNAPSHOT) satellite, also designated OPS 4682, was an Agena-D derived spacecraft equipped with an experimental SNAP-10A nuclear reactor.

Its mission – to demonstrate nuclear power in space and to test an ion propulsion system – was a failure; the spacecraft’s power system malfunctioned around 43 days after launch knocking out the reactor and the ion engine test was unsuccessful.

Z6SNAPSHOT remains in low Earth orbit. It is the only US satellite to carry a nuclear reactor – although many spacecraft equipped with passive nuclear power systems such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) have been flown. The Soviet Union by contrast, had a series of operational nuclear-powered spacecraft – the Upravlyaemy Sputnik Aktivnyj (US-A) series of radar reconnaissance satellites, nicknamed RORSAT by western analysts.

A total of 39 Atlas-Agenas were launched from SLC-4; twelve from SLC-4W and 27 from SLC-4E. Both the Atlas LV-3 Agena-D and the Atlas SLV-3 Agena-D configurations flew from the complexes. Following a KH-7 launch on 12 March 1965, SLC-4W was taken out of service and converted to support the Titan IIIB rocket. A version of the Titan III with no boosters and an Agena-D third stage, the Titan IIIB first flew from SLC-4W in July 1966.

All sixty-eight Titan IIIB launches, across four different configurations, originated from SLC-4W. Fifty-four of these launches carried KH-8 GAMBIT-3 imaging satellites, with the remainder deploying Jumpseat ELINT spacecraft and SDS communications satellites into molniya orbits. All sixty-eight missions carried NRO satellites. The final Titan IIIB launch, in the Titan III(34)B configuration, occurred in February 1987 with the USA-21 satellite – an SDS spacecraft.

Following the completion of Titan IIIB launches, SLC-4W supported the Titan II(23)G; a series of converted Titan II missiles carrying spacecraft for the NRO, US Air Force, NASA and NOAA. The first launch occurred in September 1988 with an NRO ELINT satellite, and following thirteen flights it was retired with the launch of a DMSP weather satellite in October 2003.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????During its tenure at SLC-4W, the Titan II carried three classified low Earth orbit ELINT satellites for the NRO; the Landsat 6 earth imaging satellite; seven weather satellites – three from the US Air Force’s DMSP program, three from the NOAA’s TIROS program the experimental Coriolis satellite for the Space Test Program; NASA’s QuikSCAT oceanography mission and the Clementine spacecraft. A joint venture between NASA and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, Clementine became the first, and to date only, Vandenberg-launched mission to visit the Moon.

While SLC-4W was supporting early KH-8 launches on the Titan IIIB, KH-7 launches were continuing from SLC-4E. The twenty-seventh and last occurred on 4 June 1967, before the pad was converted to serve the Titan IIID. A two-stage configuration with a pair of UA-1205 boosters, the Titan IIID made twenty-two flights from SLC-4E between 1971 and 1982, carrying the NRO’s largest reconnaissance satellites – the KH-9 HEXAGON and the KH-11 KENNAN. Seventeen KH-9s and five KH-11s were deployed before the Titan IIID was retired in favour of the Titan III(34)D, or Titan 34D.

The 34D was a standardized Titan III with a stretched first stage, which replaced the east coast Titan IIIC as well as the IIID. The rocket could fly in a two-stage configuration with no upper stage – alternatively it could carry a Transtage or an Inertial Upper Stage to reach higher orbits.

All of the launches from Vandenberg made use of the two-stage configuration. Seven flew from SLC-4E between 1983 and 1988, with two back-to-back launch failures in 1985 and 1986.

Titan launchDuring the August 1985 launch, which carried a KH-11 satellite, the rocket began to tumble out of control after a first stage engine failure three and a half minutes after launch. According to the USAF’s mishap report on the incident, the rocket was destroyed by range safety 273 seconds after liftoff.

The next rocket to be launched, in April 1986, developed a fault eight seconds into its flight – leading to an RSO destruct command being sent sixteen seconds after liftoff.

Debris fell around SLC-4E, causing damage to the launch pad and surrounding equipment.

The Titan 34D was replaced by the Titan IV, which continued to use Complex 4E. The first Titan IV launch from Vandenberg was the type’s fourth flight in March 1991, carrying the second Lacrosse radar imaging satellite. Twelve Titan IVs were launched from Vandenberg, using the 403A, 404A, 403B and 404B configurations – two stage rockets optimized to launch from Vandenberg.

Titan launchAs in previous years the complex was still exclusively used for NRO missions, however a more varied array of payloads were carried; Intruder ocean surveillance SIGINT spacecraft, Lacrosse or Onyx radar-imaging birds, KH-11 optical satellites and USA-144, a Misty stealth reconnaissance satellite.

The final Titan launch from SLC-4E occurred on 19 October 2005, with a Titan IV(404)B deploying USA-186 – a KH-11 satellite whose replacement, NROL-65, was recently launched by a Delta IV. That launch, which occurred a day after the second anniversary of the final Titan II launch, marked the final flight of the Titan family of rockets.

Work to convert SLC-4E for the Falcon 9 began in 2011 with the demolition of the old Titan IV structures, including the umbilical and mobile service towers. The pad was cleared by the end of 2011, with construction of new facilities for the Falcon beginning shortly afterwards. While most construction was completed by late last year, SpaceX has plans to erect a mobile service tower in the near future.

Z64Typically Falcon rockets are integrated horizontally, however some military payloads, which SpaceX hopes to bid for, require vertical integration onto the rocket. The former Titan II pad at Space Launch Complex 4W is still standing, having been derelict since 2003.

The launch of CASSIOPE was not the first which SpaceX have attempted from Vandenberg. In the mid 2000s the company built a Falcon 1 launch pad at Space Launch Complex 3W and got as far as conducting a static firing on the pad in preparation for its maiden flight carrying the TacSat-1 spacecraft.

Reluctant to allow the first flight of a new rocket to overfly a Titan IV with an expensive NRO payload which was sitting on SLC-4E at the time, the USAF forced SpaceX to delay the launch, with SpaceX opting to fly the planned second launch – from Omelek Island – ahead of what was originally to have been the maiden flight.

The TacSat launch was cancelled after delays ensuing from the failure of the launch from Omelek rendered its technology demonstration payload obsolete. No further launches were scheduled from Vandenberg, and the complex has reportedly since been dismantled.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Instead of using SLC-3W, the Falcon 1 made all five of its launches from Omelek, in the Marshall Islands. Its first three launches all failed, with the second carrying a demonstration payload and the third the Trailblazer satellite for the US Department of Defense’s Operationally Responsive Space office.

The Trailblazer launch also carried two NASA CubeSats and a Celestis space burial capsule containing cremated remains of, among others, astronaut Gordon Cooper and Star Trek actor James Doohan. Backup samples were eventually placed into orbit by a Falcon 9 launch in 2012.

The fourth Falcon 1, which carried the RatSat mass simulator, was launched on 28 September 2008. Successfully achieving low Earth orbit, the Falcon 1 became the first privately funded and developed liquid-fuelled rocket to do so.

The successful mission paved the way for the next Falcon 1 to carry a commercial payload – Malaysia’s much-delayed RazakSAT imaging bird. This was successfully placed into orbit in July 2009, after which the Falcon 1 was retired in favour of a new configuration, the Falcon 1e, which was then in development. This was later cancelled as SpaceX opted to focus on its larger rockets.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Sunday’s launch was the eleventh overall for SpaceX, and the second of the year. SpaceX hopes to conduct two more launches before the end of 2013, with a pair geostationary communications satellites scheduled to fly on separate Falcon 9 v1.1s from Cape Canaveral in the next few months.

The first launch, with the SES-8 satellite for European satellite operator SES, is currently expected to occur no earlier than 23 October, with the second launch carrying Thaicom-6, manifested for late November or December. The next Falcon 9 launch from Vandenberg is planned for late next year with Argentina’s SAOCOM-1A satellite; although before that the pad is expected to be used for the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

Overall, Sunday’s launch was the fifty-seventh or fifty-eighth orbital launch of 2013, and the fifteenth of an American rocket. The next US launch will be a Delta IV flying from Cape Canaveral on 17 October, carrying a GPS satellite.

The Falcon is the fourth of five rockets expected to launch from Vandenberg this year – following Atlas V, Pegasus and Delta IV missions in February, June and August respectively. Another Atlas V launch, carrying the NROL-39 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, is slated to occur in December.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 launch marks the end of a month of first flights: it will be the third or fourth rocket to make its maiden flight in September – following the Minotaur V, Japan’s Epsilon and possibly China’s Kuaizhou, although there are rumors of a possible failed Kuaizhou launch on or around 17 March last year.

Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus spacecraft also launched on its maiden flight this month, a flight which saw it berth with the ISS on Sunday.

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