January 31, 2018 / 9:53 PM / 2 months ago

SpaceX rocket launches Luxembourg satellite for NATO

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Wednesday carrying into orbit a Luxembourg-made communications satellite designed in part to expand NATO’s surveillance reach and its capability to deter cyber attacks on alliance members.

The liftoff at 4:25 p.m. EST (2125 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station followed a technical glitch that prompted a 24-hour flight delay. It marked the second rocket launch this year for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and his privately owned Space Exploration Technologies.

It comes a week before the California-based company is slated to conduct its highly anticipated first test flight of the much larger and more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, which packs three times the thrust of the Falcon 9.

Wednesday’s payload was a communications satellite built for LuxGovSat S.A., a public-private joint venture between the Luxembourg government and Luxembourg-based telecommunications company SES, in part to fulfill that nation’s growing defense obligations to NATO.

The so-called GovSat-1 satellite will provide, among other things, greater cyber protection for Luxembourg’s European Union partners and NATO allies, including the United States, Luxembourg Defense Minister Etienne Schneider told a news conference on Tuesday.

GovSat-1 also will serve civilian telecommunications security functions.

Thirty-four minutes after liftoff, the satellite was successfully released into a highly elliptical “parking” orbit, according to SpaceX. It will eventually settle into a round orbit 22,370 miles (36,000 km) high, where it will circle the Earth for 15 years.

A spokesman for Schneider said the $279 million satellite, which weighs about 4-1/2 tons, is part of a broader policy of doubling the country’s contributions to NATO.

Citing new security threats, a senior NATO official told Reuters in March that the alliance planned to spend more than $3 billion on defense technology, a third of which would go toward satellite communications.

Unlike many recent SpaceX launches, the company had not initially planned on retrieving the rocket’s reusable main-stage because the payload had to be carried to such a high orbit that the booster was left without sufficient fuel to fly back to Earth for a return landing.

However, the booster “amazingly” survived its ocean splash-down intact, Musk said in a Twitter message posted later with a photograph of the vehicle floating at sea. “We will try to tow it back to shore,” he said.

The same Falcon 9 booster was used last year in a mission to launch a top-secret payload into space for the U.S. government.

Additional reporting by Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral; Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler

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