A European satellite operator called SES has stepped up to become the first SpaceX customer to have its payload launched in a rocket that's already been to space. Last year, we wrote about how companies like SpaceX were at the cutting edge of reusable rockets. SpaceX has demonstrated it can launch a rocket into space, return it to Earth, land it safely and refurbish it for another launch. This, however, would be the first time one of its rockets would actually return to low-Earth orbit.
SpaceX has already conducted a test-firing of a Falcon 9 rocket that had gone through this launch and refurbishment process. In that test, the rocket was anchored to the launch facility and stayed earthbound. The test was successful, though SpaceX representatives said that the test rocket would never fly a payload to space again.
That first reused rocket has already had a pretty good run. It delivered a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station in April 2016. For its second go-round its new cargo will be the SES-10 satellite, a geostationary satellite that will deliver direct-to-home broadcasting services to Latin America.
Apart from the significant engineering challenges required, one of the biggest obstacles in the way of getting up into space is how darned expensive it is (we touched on this in our article about how burnt bread could double as an inexpensive insulator for space).
Before the era of private space organizations, the cost to launch a payload into low-Earth orbit was somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 per pound (or more than $22,000 per kilogram). Competition in the industry and innovations in rocketry have brought those costs down significantly.
Reusable rockets can continue that trend. Building and launching new spacecraft is incredibly expensive, so reusing rockets makes economic sense if the refurbishment process is reliable. While SpaceX hasn't shared how much the company is charging SES for the reused rocket trip, industry analysts suspect it's getting a 30 percent discount on the normal $62 million price tag. That's a hefty price cut to $43 million. If the launch is a success, it could propel the industry into a new era of lower-cost space launches.
And lower costs could mean we see an explosion in scientific research, telecommunications deployment and even space tourism. We don't have a specific date for SES-10's journey, though we know it's supposed to launch sometime in the fourth quarter of 2016. Here's hoping the launch is a spectacular success!
Editorial note: Between the time we wrote and published this story, SpaceX experienced a failed rocket launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday, Sept. 1. The payload was Facebook's Internet.org satellite. It is not clear at this time how the failed launch will affect future launch dates.