Science News

U.S. rocket firm puts Malaysian satellite in orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL., Florida (Reuters) - A pioneering rocket company that wants to take over the job of sending U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station launched an imaging satellite into orbit late on Monday for a Malaysian firm, its first paying customer.

Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 1 rocket lifted off from Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Western Pacific at 11:35 p.m. EDT/0335 GMT on Tuesday carrying the 400-pound (180-kg) RazakSAT satellite, designed and built by ATSB of Malaysia.

The spacecraft has black-and-white and color cameras to take high-resolution pictures of agricultural lands, forests, urban centers and other targets in Malaysia for commercial and government customers.

It was the fifth flight for Space Exploration Technologies, a privately funded California firm founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, a co-creator of the PayPal financial services company that was purchased by eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.

SpaceX’s first three launches in 2006, 2007 and 2008, fell short of reaching orbit.

Its fourth launch last September successfully put a dummy payload into orbit.

In addition to its Falcon 1 rocket, which can put a half-ton payload into orbit for about $8 million, SpaceX is developing a heavy-lift Falcon 9 rocket that can carry 11 tons to low-Earth orbit, or four tons to an orbit 22,300 miles above the planet, for about $40 million.

“We’re the lowest prices on the market for comparable capabilities,” Musk said in a recent interview.

The firm’s biggest customer is NASA, which has reservations for more than half of SpaceX’s two dozen upcoming missions. The company has contracts to develop and deliver a space station cargo vehicle. It also is petitioning for a $300 million contract addition to upgrade its Dragon capsule to ferry astronauts to and from the space station after NASA retires its space shuttle fleet next year.

“It’s a no-lose proposition for the taxpayer,” Musk said. “If we don’t do what we say we’re going to do, we don’t get paid.”

Falcon 9’s debut flight is scheduled for October from a new launch complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Editing by Eric Walsh