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Soaring Interest in Earth's Low Orbit

April 22, 2003|Josh Friedman

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, is aiming first at the market for small satellites that go into low Earth orbit. These are satellites primarily used for telecommunications and Earth-observation research, such as mapping.

Potential customers include private firms and government agencies, including the military.

SpaceX faces plenty of competition in the low-orbit launch business. Among its U.S. rivals are Orbital Sciences Corp., Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. Foreign competitors include some Russian and Chinese firms as well as France's Arianespace, the biggest player in the commercial launch business.

SpaceX will charge about $6 million for a launch, which Chief Executive Elon Musk contends will undercut most of his rivals.

SpaceX is leasing two potential launch sites for its new Falcon rocket: one at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and one at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Environmental impact assessments are underway, and Musk said he anticipates no impediment on that front because of Falcon's relatively small size. The 28-ton rocket will be 68 feet long by 5 1/2 feet wide.

SpaceX has 22 workers, including two at a test site in Texas where the Falcon's liquid-oxygen and kerosene engine was recently fired at full thrust -- 60,000 pounds, or slightly more power than a Boeing 747.

The firm's first two clients are expected to be government customers, one American and one foreign, Musk said, although he declined to name them. He said he has commitments but not "checks in the bank."

If Falcon proves successful in flight, Musk said he hopes to raise capital from outside investors next year and build a bigger launcher to propel more powerful satellites into higher orbit.

If SpaceX pursues higher-orbit launches, it would compete head-on against the major providers as well as a new European venture developing the so-called Vega launcher, Musk said.

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