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SpaceX launches upgraded Falcon rocket on first orbital mission

Image: Falcon 9 v1.1 launch
SpaceX's Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket rises from its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Sunday.SpaceX via Twitter/ElonMusk

The private spaceflight company SpaceX launched the first of its new and improved Falcon 9 rockets from the California coast on Sunday, succeeding with an ambitious test flight that also marked the company's first flight from the West Coast.

The unmanned next-generation Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket blasted off from SpaceX's launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9 a.m. PT (noon ET), carrying a Canadian satellite to track space weather along with three other small satellites.

"It was an amazing flight," SpaceX's Falcon 9 product manager, John Insprucker, said in a launch webcast. "There's tons of data coming back and it looks like it was a picture-perfect flight. Everything was looking good right down the middle of the track." [See launch photos for SpaceX's next-generation Falcon 9 rocket]

On the webcast, SpaceX employees were seen cheering at the company's headquarters and rocket factory in Hawthorne, Calif., as the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket soared toward orbit.

Reusable rocket test
Sunday's launch marked the sixth Falcon 9 rocket launch for SpaceX, which was founded in 2002 by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. This was SpaceX's first flight to include major upgrades to the 22-story rocket, which is designed to launch the planned crew-carrying Dragon space capsule.

One of those upgrades included an innovative addition to the Falcon 9's first stage, which SpaceX designed to restart after separating from the second stage. SpaceX officials said the plan called for two first-stage engine maneuvers before the booster splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Such maneuvers would come into play in SpaceX's plan to recycle and reuse the first stage of its Falcon rockets.

In several interviews before the launch, Musk said that the odds of success for the reusability test were low, a view which SpaceX officials echoed to reporters. [Exclusive Video: Elon Musk's Reusable Rocket Vision] "It is important to note that this is not a priority for this flight, and SpaceX does not expect success with this first test," company spokeswoman Hannah Post told

In a post-launch twitter update, Musk said the test was not fully successful: "Rocket booster relit twice ... but spun up due to aero torque, so fuel centrifuged and we flamed out."

SpaceX has been working to develop technology for a completely reusable rocket launch system. In McGregor, Texas, it has launched a novel reusable Grasshopper rocket prototype on several vertical launch and landing test flights.

Sunday's launch was also the first time a Falcon 9 launched a satellite into orbit instead of the company's Dragon space capsule. During the webcast, the rocket's first stage appeared to separate smoothly from the second stage and fall away as planned. The second stage then ignited on schedule as the huge satellite payload fairing, which is large enough to house a school bus, separated to expose Canada's CASSIOPE space weather-tracking satellite.

Built by the Canadian Space Agency, the 1,060-pound (481-kilogram) satellite will study how solar particles from the sun interact with Earth's atmosphere during space weather events. It includes special cameras to observe the auroras at the Earth's pole created by this interaction, Canadian space officials say.

New, improved rocket
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stage launch vehicle that stands 224.4 feet (68.4 meters) tall and is powered by nine Merlin engines also developed by the company. The booster is designed to launch satellites into orbit, as well as manned and unmanned versions of SpaceX's Dragon space capsule.

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to use launch cargo missions to the International Space Station using Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon space capsules. The company is also building a manned version of the Dragon in a bid to launch astronauts into orbit for NASA.

The Falcon 9 rocket improvements include a set of nine brand-new Merlin 1D engines arranged in a novel circular pattern — which SpaceX calls the "Octaweb" — that together can generate 1.5 million pounds of thrust in a vacuum, a 50 percent increase over previous Falcon 9 engines.

"The new layout also provides individual protection for each engine, and further protects other engines in case of an engine failure," SpaceX officials explained in a mission description. "With this design, Falcon 9 is also prepared for reusability — the Octaweb will be able to survive the first stage’s return to Earth post-launch."

The new Falcon 9 rocket carries more fuel for those engines and is equipped with a triple-redundant avionics system, as well as a more durable first stage to help the booster better withstand its re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, she added.

In addition to Cassiope, Sunday's launch put three smaller satellites in orbit:

  • Polar Orbiting Passive Atmospheric Calibration Spheres (POPACS): A privately funded CubeSat mission to measure the effects of solar flares and coronal mass ejections on the density of Earth's upper atmosphere.
  • Drag and Atmospheric Neutral Density Explorer (DANDE): A 110-pound (50-kilogram) spherical spacecraft developed by students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The goal of the DANDE mission is to provide an improved understanding of the satellite drag environment in the lower thermosphere.
  • CUSat: A technology demonstrator developed by Cornell University. CUSat will use a new, relative GPS algorithm called Carrier-phase Differential GPS (CDGPS) that will provide accuracy to the millimeter level.

"All satellites deployed at the targeted orbit insertion vectors," Musk reported after the launch.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch took place on a big day for commercial spaceflight. The rocket launched into orbit just hours after Orbital Sciences Corp.'s commercial Cygnus spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station, capping its own test flight. Like SpaceX, the Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences has a contract with NASA for unmanned cargo delivery flights. Orbital's contract is a $1.9 billion deal for eight delivery flights using the Cygnus spacecraft.

With Sunday's successful launch test, SpaceX will turn its attention to its next launch. The company has at least three more Falcon 9 rocket flights planned for 2013, all of which will launch satellites into orbit for customers using the company's launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

This report was updated by NBC News.