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SpaceX scores a satellite success

A private spaceflight company launched a Malaysian satellite into orbit using a rocket of its own design late Monday, marking the firm's first successful commercial space shot.
Image: Falcon 1 launch
A video camera captures Monday's launch of a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket from its Pacific island launch pad. Droplets of moisture hang on the camera's lens. The rocket sent a Malaysian satellite into orbit, marking SpaceX's first commercial success.SpaceX
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A private spaceflight company launched a Malaysian satellite into orbit using a rocket of its own design late Monday, marking the firm's first successful commercial space shot.

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, launched the small satellite atop its Falcon 1 rocket, a two-stage booster that made its first successful test flight last year after three consecutive failures. It was the fifth Falcon 1 launch for SpaceX, but the first to haul a functional Earth-watching satellite into its intended orbit.

The Falcon 1 rocket blasted off at about 11:35 p.m. ET from the U.S. Army's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Defense Test Site on Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll, a launch site that sits about 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii.

A malfunction in equipment used to load helium aboard the Falcon 1 rocket pushed the mission four hours beyond its initial launch target, with stormy weather delaying the mission even more.

SpaceX initially hoped to launch RazakSAT in April, but the need to eliminate a vibration issue between the satellite and its Falcon 1 rocket set the flight back several months.

‘Nominal’ rise to orbit
Despite those lengthy delays, Monday's launch ultimately reached orbit without a hitch. After jettisoning its first stage as designed, the Falcon 1 booster reached a parking orbit and later restarted its rocket engine to deploy RazakSAT in an orbit that flies high above Earth's equator.

"Second burn and satellite separation nominal," SpaceX officials said in an update. "Falcon 1 has successfully deployed RazakSAT into the correct orbit."

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RazakSAT was built by Malaysia's Astronautic Technology (M) Sdn. Bhd. to take high-resolution images of Malaysia, to aid land management, resource development and conservation, forestry and fish migration studies, SpaceX officials said. The satellite carries a camera that can observe Earth at a panchromatic resolution of 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) and a color resolution of about 16.4 feet (5 meters).

The Falcon 1 rocket launched several hours after NASA canceled its own launch of the space shuttle Endeavour in Florida for the fifth time, this time due to foul weather. The shuttle is slated to launch Wednesday to begin a long-delayed construction flight to the international space station.

Falcon rocket family
SpaceX, too, has its eyes on flying to the international space station. Founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Elon Musk, a co-founder of the electronic payment service PayPal, SpaceX is aiming to offer low-cost launches to space with its Falcon 1 rocket and a larger version called Falcon 9.

The Falcon 1 rocket can haul small satellites, like the nearly 400-pound (180-kilogram) RazakSAT, into low Earth orbit. After three launch failures between 2006 and 2008, SpaceX successfully reached orbit with a Falcon 1 rocket last September. Falcon 1 launches currently cost about $8 million per flight, SpaceX officials have said.

The larger Falcon 9, however, is designed to launch SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, a capsule-based vehicle tapped by NASA as one of two privately built spacecraft to ferry cargo to and from the international space station. NASA awarded SpaceX with a $1.6 billion contract last year to launch 12 unmanned cargo flights to the space station by 2016. The other vehicle, Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus spacecraft, received a $1.9 billion contract from NASA for eight cargo flights.

SpaceX has drawn up plans for a free-flying version of Dragon, called DragonLab, for space experiments, as well as a manned version to launch astronauts to and from the space station. The company plans to launch its first Falcon 9 rocket test flight sometime this year from a seaside pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, SpaceX officials have said.

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