By Jonathan AmosScience correspondent, BBC News
The US SpaceX company will make its play on Monday to grab a big slice of the market for launching the world’s TV and telecoms satellites.
The California outfit is set to place an important new platform in orbit for SES to serve its television customers in India and parts of South East Asia.
Success will require its Falcon 9 rocket put the SES-8 satellite thousands of km above the Earth.
If it works, SpaceX is sure to win more orders in a market that is tightly contested, but which has become dominated in recent years by just two companies – Europe’s Arianespace, which flies the Ariane 5; and International Launch Services (ILS), which markets Russia’s Proton vehicle.
SpaceX is promising to substantially undercut the pair on price, and SES, the world’s second largest telecoms satellite operator, believes the existing players had better take note.
“The entry of SpaceX into the commercial market is a game-changer – it is going to really shake the industry to its roots,” said SES CTO Martin Halliwell.
“Other launch vehicle providers are looking with great interest in the success, or not, of this launch, and I think they will be rather worried for their future,” he told BBC News.
Monday’s flight from Cape Canaveral in Florida will be the seventh flight for a Falcon 9.
All of the previous missions have gone to low orbits just a few hundred km above the Earth. This was work done mostly for the US space agency (Nasa), to keep the space station stocked with supplies.
Monday’s outing, on the other hand, requires the Falcon put SES-8 into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) that runs an elliptical path out to 80,000km.
Once it comes off the upper-stage, the satellite, with its own propulsion system, will then circularise this orbit and move to a “stationary” position some 36,000km above the equator at 95 degrees East.
For the Falcon 9 to get SES-8 on just the right path, its upper-stage will need to ignite twice – something it failed to do on a demonstration mission in September.
The fault was traced to frozen ignition fluid lines, and extra insulation has been added to piping on Monday’s vehicle to ensure it copes better with the extreme temperatures in space.
“We’ve done everything we can possibly think of to maximise the reliability of this launch,” said Elon Musk, the SpaceX CEO and chief designer.
“There’s no stone that hasn’t been turned over at least twice to maximise the probability of success. Being a rocket, there’s still some chance of failure, but whatever happens we can be at peace that we’ve done everything we could think of, and SES’s technical team has looked at it and they concur.”
SpaceX has a backlog of customers waiting for an opportunity to launch on a Falcon.
Its manifest, which is approaching 50 flights, represents about $4bn in contracts.
A good chunk of these are Nasa space station sorties, but a sizeable segment also now includes commercial customers like SES who have been drawn to SpaceX’s price-competitive offering.
The interest means SpaceX is having to ramp up production of its Falcon.
“We have been investing heavily for the last year-and-a-half or so in production capability,” explained Gwynne Shotwell, the SpaceX president and COO.
“Right now, we’re at about a vehicle per month production rate. We’ll be at 18 per year in the next couple of quarters, and by the end of next year we’ll be at a rate of 24 a year, or two a month.”
This calls for rapid fabrication of Merlin engines – the kerosene/liquid-oxygen power units that give the Falcon its thrust. Each rocket needs 10 Merlins – nine on the lower-stage, one on the upper-stage.
Europe’s launcher industry is already taking steps to try to protect Ariane’s market share. These steps involve boosting the performance of the existing rocket design, and starting work on a new Ariane 6 variant that can be made for substantially lower cost.
The launch window for Monday’s Falcon/SES mission opens at 17:37 local Florida time (22:37 GMT) and closes at 18:42 (23:42 GMT).