CAPE CANAVERAL — SpaceX got the Cape’s 2014 launch schedule off to a positive start Monday with a Falcon 9 rocket’s delivery of a Thai broadcasting satellite to orbit.
The 224-foot rocket blasted off on time at 5:06 p.m. and quickly rumbled into clouds above Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Suspense built as more than 20 minutes passed after the spacecraft’s scheduled deployment time with no news of its status.
SpaceX finally confirmed the Thaicom 6 satellite had reached its intended orbit, which lifted it more than 55,000 miles above the planet before it eventually settles about half as high.
“Sure is a great start to 2014 :)” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote in a Twitter message.
The launch was the third successful outing by SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, whose 1.3 million pounds of thrust could be heard long after the vehicle had disappeared from view.
That performance likely achieves an important milestone for SpaceX.
Under an agreement with the Air Force, three good flights are needed for the new rocket to earn the right to compete for launches of large national security satellites and some of NASA’s more high-profile missions.
Review of the launches will take months, but could put SpaceX in position to compete as soon as next year for contracts now awarded exclusively to United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.
Monday’s launch was the second from the Cape in just over a month of a commercial communications satellite, following four years without any. SpaceX launched a satellite for Luxembourg-based SES on Dec. 3.
The Hawthorne, Calif., company’s lower-cost rockets, which are advertised online for about $60 million, are winning back missions now dominated by international launchers.
Anticipating more frequent launches — potentially also of astronauts within a few years — SpaceX recently began negotiating with NASA for use of a former shuttle launch complex at Kennedy Space Center, and is exploring an additional site for which Florida is competing with Texas and possibly other states.