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Traffic tie-up: SpaceX's landmark launch scrubbed until Thanksgiving

Launch-pad glitches forced SpaceX to delay a landmark commercial satellite launch on Monday, and the next opportunity won't come until Thanksgiving Day — reportedly due in part to the holiday air-traffic rush.

The California-based launch company had a 66-minute window to launch its beefed-up Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, with the aim of sending the SES-8 telecommunication satellite toward a geostationary orbit of 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers). The launch would mark SpaceX's first foray into the lucrative market for sending satellites that high.

However, the two-stage Falcon 9 v1.1 never got off the ground. At first, liftoff was delayed due to an anomaly with a vent valve for the rocket's liquid-oxygen tank. Then, a little more than six minutes before the revised launch time, the countdown was stopped due to a power-supply parameter that was set too low.

That parameter was adjusted in time for the countdown to be recycled for yet another attempt. However, when the clock wound down to T-minus 3:41, another hold was called — this time, due to an "off-nominal condition" with the first stage's liquid-oxygen pressurization system.

"We observed unexpected readings with the first-stage liquid oxygen system so we decided to investigate," SpaceX said in an emailed statement. "The launch vehicle and satellite are in great shape and we are looking forward to the next launch opportunity on Thursday."

SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, put it a slightly different way in a Twitter update: "Saw pressure fluctuations on Falcon boost stage liquid oxygen tank. Want to be super careful, so pushing launch to Thurs."

The next launch window opens at 5:38 p.m. ET Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. Spaceflight Now reported that the Federal Aviation Administration did not give its approval for Tuesday or Wednesday as backup launch days because those are two of the busiest air travel days of the year.

A lot is riding on this launch, for SpaceX as well as the satellite's operator, Luxembourg-based SES.

If SpaceX puts the SES-8 satellite in its intended orbit, that would be a "game-changer" for the satellite industry, according to Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer for SES. "It's going to really shake the industry to its roots," he told reporters on Sunday.

SES is reportedly paying less than $60 million for the launch, which is tens of millions of dollars less than the going rate for satellite launches heading for geostationary orbit.

SpaceX and its two-stage Falcon 9 rocket have already made their mark with a series of successful NASA-funded missions to resupply the International Space Station, which flies at an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers). But early versions of the Falcon 9 weren't powerful enough to put large payloads into geostationary orbit. 

A geostationary orbit allows a satellite to be "parked" over a stable point on Earth's surface — which is why it's favored for the kinds of military and telecom satellites that provide the richest market for commercial launch providers. Over the past year, SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 with Merlin 1D engines, an improved "Octaweb" arrangement of those engines, and other enhancements aimed at targeting the geostationary launch market.

First try fell short
The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket had its first tryout in September with the launch of the Canadian Space Agency's Cassiope research satellite. That satellite was deployed successfully, but the Falcon's second stage failed to reignite for its push to higher orbit. Relighting the second stage to boost SES-8's orbit is essential for success.

SpaceX traced the problem to a frozen igniter fluid line — an issue that didn't turn up during ground testing under warmer conditions. To fix that problem, the company has added insulation to the line.

SES' Halliwell said his company worked with SpaceX "to a greater extent than [with] our existing launch service providers," to make sure that the problem was fixed and that the chances for success were maximized. SpaceX has a dozen Falcon 9 launches on its manifest for next year, including more geostationary satellites.

The flight plan for the SES-8 launch calls for sending the satellite into an eccentric transfer orbit that varies in altitude between 183 miles (295 kilometers) and 49,700 miles (80,000 kilometers). Later, the satellite's thrusters would stabilize the orbit at a steady altitude of 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers).

The satellite was built for SES by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. It will provide TV and broadband data services to customers in the Asia-Pacific region, including India, China and parts of Southeast Asia.

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Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.