By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla (Reuters) – A Space Exploration Technologies rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sunday to put the worldâ€™s first all-electric communications satellites into orbit.
The 22-story tall booster soared off its seaside launch pad at 10:50 a.m. EST, the third flight in less than two months for SpaceX, as the privately owned, California-based company is known.
p> Perched on top of the rocket were a pair of satellites built by Boeing & owned by Paris-based Eutelsat Communications & Bermuda-based ABS, whose majority owner is the European private equity firm Permira.
Eutelsat & ABS shared satellite manufacturing & launch costs, a business arrangement spurred by technological innovation.
The satellites launched on Sunday are outfitted with lightweight, all-electric engines, rather than conventional chemical propulsion systems, to reach & maintain orbit.
That enabled two spacecraft to be launched aboard one medium-sized Falcon 9 rocket.
"The value of electrical propulsion is that it allows the satellite operator to need much less fuel than when the satellite has chemical propulsion," Eutelsat chief executive Michel de Rosen said in an interview before launch.
"You can have a much lighter satellite, so that, in theory, the cost of your launch is much reduced."
SpaceX, owned & operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, turned the theoretical price cuts into reality, breaking what de Rosen calls â€œa quasi-monopolyâ€ Europeâ€™s Arianespace had on the small satellite launch market.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although SpaceX's website lists a Falcon 9 launch as costing $61 million.
The disadvantage of electric propulsion is that it will take the satellites months, rather than weeks, to reach their operational orbits approximately 22,300 miles (35,800 km) above Earth, high enough to appear virtually parked over a particular part of the globe.
Eutelsatâ€™s spacecraft will become part of a 35-member network providing a range of mobile, internet, video & other communications services. The new satellite expands the companyâ€™s reach into the Americas.
ABS, which currently has six satellites, will position its new spacecraft to moreover serve customers in Europe, Africa & the Middle East.
The companies are partnering for a second pair of satellites that are due to launch aboard another Falcon 9 rocket after this year. SpaceX moreover flies cargo missions to the International Space Station for NASA & is working on an upgraded spaceship to fly astronauts as well.
(Editing by Paul Tait)