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Satellite company will become first to launch used SpaceX rocket

Satellite fleet operator SES will become the first to launch on a used SpaceX rocket, an important move toward making space travel more affordable.

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SpaceX has signed SES as its first customer to launch a satellite on one of its reused rockets.

SpaceX

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In April, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket delivered cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) before it landed on a barge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Later this year, that same rocket is set to become the first in history to be reused, ushering in the age of second-hand rockets.

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It will carry into orbit a satellite meant to provide telecommunications coverage to Central and South America, SES, the satellite maker, announced Tuesday.

The launch will mark an important step in space travel and space commerce, as reusable rockets can significantly reduce the cost of sending cargo (and perhaps humans) outside the atmosphere.

"We think it's a big moment," Martin Halliwell, the chief technology officer at SES, told BBC News. “We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management,” Mr. Halliwell added in the statement.

The launch is scheduled in the fourth quarter of 2016, according to SES. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will carry an SES-10 satellite that is meant to provide telecommunications coverage for Central and South America and the Caribbean.

SpaceX charges $60 million for a commercial launch, according to SpaceNews, but Halliwell told the BBC that SpaceX has offered his company a discount.

The rocket scheduled to carry the satellite into high orbit left Earth for the first time on April 8 , when it launched 1.5 tons of supplies to the International Space Station before it landing on a cargo ship off the Florida coast. It was the first time SpaceX successfully landed a rocket at sea. The booster was then brought to Texas, where it was tested and OKed for a second flight. 

Reusable rockets have long been the holy grail of space travel, as BBC’s Jonathan Amos writes.

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“The space shuttle was famously designed as a partially reusable system, and yet the complexities of servicing the vehicle swamped any savings. The shuttle main engine, for example, although an engineering marvel, contained 50,000 parts” writes Mr. Amos.

Enter SpaceX. Its Merlin engines should be able to complete at least 40 firing cycles without any major parts replacements, SpaceX has said.

The attention SpaceX has attracted as it has developed and tested reusable rockets has encouraged satellite operators and insurers to make the leap into reusability alongside them. SES was first in line, insisting SpaceX carry its satellite into space. Meanwhile, insurance officials have said the market – with low premiums and lots of cash – is just right for reusability, according to SpaceNews.

SpaceX’s inventions have also driven its commercial competitors to keep up and, in some cases, aim further. United Launch Alliance (ULA) has plans to support lunar colonization, as Christina Beck wrote for The Christian Science Monitor last week.  

“To that end, the company’s current project aims to make it cheaper and easier to get into space,” writes Ms. Beck.

Like SpaceX, ULA hopes to develop a reusable rocket. Unlike rival SpaceX, ULA’s rocket will have a reusable second stage (the portion of the rocket that finishes the journey) as well as a reusable first stage (the stage that propels the rocket from Earth into orbit).

And unlike SpaceX, which has developed the technology to bring reusable rockets back to Earth, ULA plans to leave the reusable second stages in space.

And as Beck notes, "much of today’s space innovation is occurring at the commercial level, making it ever more valuable for companies such as ULA and SpaceX to specialize."