SpaceX has successfully deployed a communications satellite into orbit for satellite operator EchoStar after launching it on board one of its Falcon 9 rockets. Called EchoStar XXIII, the satellite now sits in a high orbit above Earth, providing broadcast services for Brazil. The probe was originally scheduled to launch early Tuesday morning, but was postponed due to high winds in the area, with the launch eventually taking place at 2AM ET on Thursday morning.
Unlike the majority of SpaceX’s launches over the past couple years, this mission did not include a rocket landing post-takeoff, as CEO Elon Musk originally announced in a tweet in January. That’s because EchoStar XXIII is a particularly heavy satellite that’s going to an orbit about 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. Those two factors combined mean the Falcon 9 needed a lot of fuel for the launch, leaving little left over to perform a rocket landing.
This morning’s launch could be one of the last expendable launches SpaceX does for a while. Musk also tweeted that future missions similar to EchoStar XXIII (heavy payloads going to high orbits) would launch on the Falcon Heavy — the future heavy-lift vehicle SpaceX is developing that’s essentially three Falcon 9s strapped together. Such missions could also fly on an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, called Block 5, in the future. This iteration of the Falcon 9 will supposedly be the final upgrade for the rocket, and it’s supposed to improve the vehicle’s performance and make it easier to reuse. Musk says Block 5 will fly for the first time by the end of the year.
The EchoStar launch was SpaceX’s second from Launch Complex 39A, a prominent site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The pad at LC39A has been used for some of the most historic space missions, including Apollo 11 that took people to the Moon for the first time, as well as the last launch of the Space Shuttle in 2011. SpaceX signed a lease with NASA in 2014 to move into LC39A and refurbish the pad to accommodate flights of the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, which is supposed to fly for the first time this summer.
For the foreseeable future, SpaceX will be relying on LC39A for all its Florida launches, since the company’s other pad at the Cape — Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — is still out of commission; the site was badly damaged in September, when one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9s exploded during a routine fueling procedure on the launchpad. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell recently noted that repairs to the pad at SLC-40 could be done this summer.