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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches Telstar 19V satellite and lands on drone ship

Alan Boyle
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from its Florida launch pad, sending the Telstar 19V satellite into space. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket executed a textbook launch to put the heavy-duty Telstar 19 Vantage telecommunications satellite into orbit tonight and bring back the first-stage booster for an at-sea landing.

The successful mission kicked off what’s expected to be a rapid-fire series of three liftoffs in two weeks’ time.

The recently upgraded Block 5 variant of SpaceX’s workhorse rocket blazed into the night sky from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:50 p.m. PT (1:50 a.m. ET Sunday), at the start of a four-hour launch window.

Over the course of eight and a half minutes, the two-stage rocket sent the satellite on the first leg of its journey to a geostationary transfer orbit. While the second stage powered onward, the first-stage booster relit its engines to navigate its way through the night to an autonomous landing ship named “Of Course I Still Love You,” stationed hundreds of miles off the Florida coast in the Atlantic Ocean.

Webcam video showed the rocket’s descent to the deck, and after a break in the video stream, the booster could be seen standing tall. SpaceX workers broke out in cheers back at mission control in Hawthorne, Calif.

A SpaceX recovery team was tasked with fishing the two halves of the Falcon 9’s nose cone out of the Atlantic, in an experiment aimed at advancing the company’s plans to save millions of dollars by reusing the nose cone, or fairing, as well as the booster.

Telstar 19V is the latest in a new generation of satellites operated by Canada’s Telesat, and will be used by Hughes Network Systems to expand broadband satellite services in Brazil and other South American countries. It’ll also enhance broadband coverage for NorthwesTel, a Bell Canada subsidiary, in the far northern territory of Nunavut.

The satellite has a 15-year design life. It weighs 15,600 pounds, making it by some accounts the heaviest commercial telecom satellite ever successfully launched.

SpaceX is to launch yet another satellite in the series, Telstar 18 Vantage, in mid-August. But first, the California-based launch company is due to execute two other missions.

A Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch 10 telecom satellites into low Earth orbit for Iridium from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Wednesday. The spotlight returns to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Aug. 2, when yet another Falcon 9 is due to launch the Merah Putih satellite for Telkom Indonesia.

The Falcon 9 Block 5 is designed to be capable of far more reuse than SpaceX’s previous Block 4 variant. The new-generation rocket is also an essential part of SpaceX’s plans to start sending astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA by 2019.

Among the witnesses to tonight’s launch was Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who took in the sight just a little more than a day after the 49th anniversary of his history-making moonwalk at Neil Armstrong’s side:

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