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A lot riding on today's SpaceX launch

7:27 AM, Jan 6, 2014   |    comments
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on a test flight, September 2013. CBS News
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( - SpaceX's last launch signaled its arrival as a competitor in the market for launches of commercial satellites, which the United States has mostly lost to competitors overseas.

The company's next launch, scheduled to lift off at 5:06 p.m. today from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, reinforces that and has broader implications for government missions as well.

A successful third flight, this time of a Thai broadcasting satellite, would certify SpaceX's upgraded Falcon 9 rocket as eligible to compete for launches of the Department of Defense's national security missions and NASA's high-value science satellites.

Now, only United Launch Alliance is certified to fly those missions on Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program is working to introduce competition in hopes of lowering launch costs.

"Competition for EELV launches benefits both the Air Force and the American taxpayer," said SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin. "SpaceX greatly appreciates the Air Force's ongoing support throughout the certification process and we look forward to providing the U.S. with highly reliable launch services for national security satellites."

The Air Force has not yet signed off on the first two launches of Falcon 9 "version 1.1," which at 224 feet is taller and equipped with more powerful Merlin engines, among other changes, than the rocket that launched three cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX believes both a Sept. 29 test flight from California and a Dec. 3 launch from the Cape of a communications satellite for Luxembourg-based SES met all requirements.

The latter was SpaceX's first to deliver a commercial satellite to a geostationary orbit 22,300 miles over the equator, the same type of orbit planned for the satellite launching today for Thaicom Plc.

"We will observe the upcoming Thaicom launch and evaluate the flight data against the criteria agreed to by SpaceX," said Maj. Eric Badger, an Air Force spokesman.

It could be months before the first three missions are evaluated and certification is achieved.

Assuming that happens in the near future, Badger said the first potential EELV-class mission that SpaceX could win would be awarded in the 2015 budget year for a planned 2017 launch.

After four years with no commercial satellite launches from Cape Canaveral, today's mission would be the second in a month flown by SpaceX.

The Thaicom 6 satellite would be Thaicom's third in orbit.

Weighing about 7,300 pounds at liftoff and designed to last 15 years, the spacecraft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. will provide high-definition television service to parts of Southeast Asia and Africa.

The weather forecast calls for chilly and gusty conditions, but only a 20 percent chance that clouds or strong winds could ground the rocket during a more than two-hour launch window that closes at 7:08 p.m.

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