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SpaceX Launches Unnamed Falcon 9 Rocket

Sep 29, 2013 11:58 PM EDT
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SpaceX has successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket from the leased launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Station, in California, Friday noon.

Leaving a visible trail of smoke (water vapor), the 22-story flying monster crossed through the clear blue skies over the Pacific Ocean when it was about 16:00 GMT.

Visionary entrepreneur and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, wouldn't hide his satisfaction at the launch.

"It went better than expected. It was incredibly smooth," he told Reuters after the launch.

Smacked inside the rocket's new 17-foot diameter nose cone was a small Canadian science satellite called Cassiope that initially was to fly on SpaceX's now-discontinued Falcon 1 launcher in 2008.

"It's certainly a huge relief to have successfully delivered Cassiope to orbit. It's been weighing on me quite heavily," Musk added.

Cassiope, which is designed to monitor the space environment around Earth and serve as a communications satellite, and five secondary payloads were delivered into their intended orbits, Musk told reporters on a conference call.

As an experiment, both of the rocket's two stages were restarted during flight.

Musk is particularly interested in developing the technology to fly the Falcon's first stage back to the launch site or have it gently splash down in the water so its motors can be recovered, refurbished and reflown. Currently, after delivering their payloads into orbit, the boosters tumble back toward Earth and essentially explode mid-air before crashing into the sea.

"The most revolutionary thing about the new Falcon 9 is the potential ability to recover the boost phase, which is almost three-quarters of the cost of the rocket," Musk said.

Neither engine restart test went perfectly, but engineers were able to get enough data to plan on a demonstration flight next year.

"The most important thing is we now believe we have all the pieces of the puzzle," Musk said.

The upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 has engines that are 60 percent more powerful than previous versions, longer fuel tanks, new avionics and software and other features intended to boost lift capacity and simplify operations for commercial service.

According to Reuters, the privately-owned SpaceX has contracts for more than 50 launches of its new Falcon 9 and planned Falcon Heavy rockets.

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