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SpaceX GovSat-1 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending the GovSat-1 satellite to space. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent a telecommunications satellite into orbit today for Luxembourg’s government and the SES satellite venture, setting the stage for next week’s maiden launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

The GovSat-1 spacecraft is the first component in a NATO satellite constellation that’s designed to provide secure communications for tactical operations, maritime missions or over areas affected by humanitarian crises. It was built by Orbital ATK, with anti-jamming and encryption systems, and is meant exclusively for governmental and institutional security applications.

GovSat-1 is built to be in operation for 15 years.

Today’s launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida had been originally scheduled for Tuesday, but it was delayed 24 hours to give SpaceX time to replace a sensor on the Falcon 9’s second stage.

The rocket lifted off at 4:25 p.m. ET (1:25 p.m. PT) and lofted GovSat-1 into a geostationary transfer orbit.

Once the satellite reaches its final orbit, 22,000 miles above Earth, it will support communications within Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and enable operations over the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea.

SpaceX typically programs its first-stage booster to fly itself back to a landing after stage separation. For example, the first stage that was used today had been recovered and refurbished after a launch last May. However, because of today’s mission requirements, SpaceX let the booster fall into the Atlantic.

“It’s weirder to consider that we’re not actually recovering this one,” said launch commentator Michael Hammersley, an engineer at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

It got even weirder: After the launch, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet that the booster tested a procedure for a “very high retrothrust landing in water,” involving a three-engine blast so violent that it might have done damage to an oceangoing landing ship.

“Amazingly it has survived,” Musk said of the booster. “We will try to tow it back to shore.” (Update: They weren’t able to do it.)

SpaceX has big plans for its next launch — the first test flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which combines three Falcon 9 cores with a total of 27 Merlin engines for liftoff thrust of 5.1 million pounds.

In terms of payload-to-orbit capacity, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful launch vehicle to take flight since the Saturn V moon rocket.

Components of the Falcon Heavy have been undergoing testing for months, and a key test came last week when the fully assembled rocket fired all of its rockets at once during a launch-pad test at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

That test cleared the way for SpaceX to schedule a Feb. 6 liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The practice flight is due to send an unconventional payload — SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster sports car — on a widely looping trajectory that goes as far out as the orbit of Mars.

The flight plan calls for two of the first-stage cores to fly themselves back to a Florida landing zone after they’ve done their job, and for the center core to touch down on an oceangoing drone ship.

Musk has said “there’s a real good chance” that the Falcon Heavy won’t make it to orbit on the first try, which is why he chose a relatively expendable (and relatively silly) payload for the first test flight.

Once the Falcon Heavy passes all its tests, it will be put to work launching large satellites, or combinations of satellites. Eventually, the rocket could send payloads toward the moon and Mars.

SpaceX is working on an even bigger launch vehicle, known as the BFR or Big Falcon Rocket, which could carry scores of settlers to Mars.

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