CAPE CANAVERAL — SpaceX had already proven it could launch cargo to the International Space Station.
On Tuesday, the company achieved another milestone when its upgraded Falcon 9 rocket deployed its first commercial communications satellite into an orbit high above Earth, 33 minutes after a beautiful twilight liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
It was the third attempt in nine days to launch the broadcasting satellite for Luxembourg-based SES, one of the world’s largest satellite operators, but ultimately it signaled SpaceX’s readiness to take on a $2.4 billion market dominated by international competitors.
“The successful insertion of the SES-8 satellite confirms the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle delivers to the industry’s highest performance standards,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a statement.
Earlier Tuesday, Musk had thanked SES for taking a chance on the Falcon 9, which had launched six times before but only once in its new configuration with more powerful engines and a 43-foot payload fairing.
About two-thirds of SpaceX’s 50 contracted launches are for commercial customers, but the Falcon 9 had not yet placed a large communications satellite more than 22,000 miles over the equator where many of them operate.
Martin Halliwell, the chief technology officer for SES, had said a successful mission would “shake the industry to its roots,” with other satellite operators and launch providers watching closely to see if SpaceX could deliver on its promise.
The 224-foot Falcon 9 rumbled off its Launch Complex 40 pad with 1.3 million pounds of thrust on time at 5:41 p.m.
Technical problems had stalled two attempts last week, after which SpaceX cleaned and replaced some parts of the rocket’s nine first-stage Merlin 1D engines.
As the rocket climbed into clear skies, fading sunlight illuminated its twisting exhaust plume in orange and white, and the rocket appeared to leave a wake high above the Atlantic.
Observers could see the booster and payload fairing fall away.