By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - An unmanned SpaceX rocket on Friday blasted off from Florida to put a communications satellite into orbit, with the launch vehicle's main-stage booster set to attempt a quick return landing on a floating platform at sea.
A company webcast showed the 23-story-tall Falcon 9 rocket soaring off a seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 1:21 a.m. EDT.
Perched atop the booster was the JCSAT-14 satellite, owned by Tokyo-based telecommunications company SKY Perfect JSAT Corp, a new customer for Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.
About 2-1/2 minutes after launch, the rocket’s first stage was scheduled to shut down and separate, leaving the second stage to deliver the satellite into its intended orbit more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km) above Earth.
The returning rocket was programmed to fly itself back to a floating landing pad positioned more than 400 miles (650 km) off Florida’s east coast in the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX successfully landed a rocket on a drone ship in April, after four failed attempts. The company also landed a rocket on a ground-based pad in December, a key step in Musk’s plan to develop a cheap, reusable booster.
Before the launch, the company played down expectations for a successful return this time. Unlike the April mission, the rocket flying on Friday would have little fuel left over for engine burns to slow its descent after sending the 10,300-pound (4,700 kg) television broadcasting satellite into orbit.
The satellite, built by Space Systems Loral in Palo Alto, California, a subsidiary of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, is designed to provide television, data and mobile communications services to customers across Asia, Russia and Oceania and the Pacific Islands.
Friday’s launch was the fourth of more than a dozen flights planned this year by SpaceX, which has a backlog of more than $10 billion in launch business from customers, including NASA.
Last week, SpaceX won its first contract to launch a U.S. military satellite, breaking a 10-year-old monopoly held by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Tom Brown and Clarence Fernandez)