A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station early today with a commercial communications satellite that will beam video and broadband services across the Asia-Pacific region.
The 224-foot rocket roared from its pad at 4 a.m. with 1.3 million pounds of thrust, punched through low, thin clouds and blazed a trail southeast over the Atlantic Ocean.
Liftoff came on SpaceX's second try of the morning, after an unspecified technical problem aborted the first countdown less than a minute before the launch window opened at 1:25 a.m.
After two upper stage engine firings, SpaceX confirmed deployment of the AsiaSat 8 satellite 32 minutes into the flight, on its way to a geostationary orbit 22,300 miles over the equator.
The satellite is the first of two SpaceX plans to launch from the Cape this month for Hong Kong-based Asia Satellite Telecommunications Company Ltd., or AsiaSat, growing the company's fleet from four to six.
"These are growth satellites for us," said William Wade, AsiaSat president and CEO, in an interview before the launch. "They are adding additional capacity in existing, growing markets that will help us to provide additional services to our customers and help that market expand."
The new satellite is designed to last at least 15 years and will become the most powerful in AsiaSat's fleet.
Built by Space Systems/Loral and weighing roughly 10,000 pounds at launch, AsiaSat 8 is equipped with 24 Ku-band transponders to provide services including direct-to-home video, private networks and broadband connections.
AsiaSat 8 will fly near and bolster service already provided by AsiaSat 7, assuming an orbital slot at 105.5 degrees East longitude, where Wade said it will focus on the Indian subcontinent and Middle East.
"That's an area where we're seeing significant growth," he said.
The launch was SpaceX's third of a commercial communications satellite bound for a geostationary orbit, in which satellites match the speed of Earth's rotation and appear from the ground to be fixed in the sky.
SpaceX successfully launched similar missions for SES in December and Thaicom in January.
The mission was the 11th flown by a Falcon 9 since the rocket debuted in 2010, and the sixth by its upgraded "version 1.1."
The next Falcon 9 launch – of AsiaSat 6, which arrived at the Cape last week – is planned late this month.
Unlike on SpaceX's previous two launches to low Earth orbit, neither AsiaSat mission will include attempts to fly the Falcon 9 booster back to the ocean for recovery.
The payloads' size and trips to high orbits did not leave enough extra rocket fuel for those tests aimed at advancing development of a reusable booster.
Today's launch marked AsiaSat's return to Cape Canaveral, where it last launched 11 years ago on an Atlas rocket. The company's two most recent launches were on Russian rockets, and before 2003 it launched twice from China.
Wade said AsiaSat chose SpaceX in 2012 in part because of the satellites' relatively small size compared to some the company operates, which were a good fit for the Falcon 9.
And, of course, because of SpaceX's low cost: the company now advertises a Falcon 9 launch for $61.2 million.
"They are cheaper than some of the other alternatives," said Wade. "We were comfortable with the progress that they were making, and so we decided to make a commitment."
SpaceX says it now has nearly 50 government and commercial launches on its manifest worth nearly $5 billion.
AsiaSat 8 is only SpaceX's fourth launch of 2014, but that's one more than the 2013 total, and the company could launch four more times this year.
After AsiaSat 6, another International Space Station cargo run by a Dragon spacecraft is planned in mid-September.
Today's launch capped an impressive run from Cape Canaveral of three launches in just over a week by each of the three rockets based here, flying government and commercial payloads.
United Launch Alliance's Delta IV and Atlas V rockets delivered Air Force satellites to orbit on July 28 and Aug. 1, respectively.