Page last updated at 07:06 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 08:06 UK

Falcon rocket success for SpaceX

Falcon 1 (SpaceX)
The fourth attempt produces the right outcome

The Falcon 1 rocket developed by SpaceX has finally made a successful launch after three previous failures.

The Californian company's two-stage vehicle lofted a dummy payload from Omelek Island in the central Pacific.

Founded by internet billionaire Elon Musk, SpaceX has a vision of reducing substantially the cost of access to space.

A larger rocket, Falcon 9, is likely to be used by the US to take cargo and even astronauts to the space station.

It was a case of fourth-time lucky for the smaller satellite launcher, which will charge $7.9m (3.9m) to put 420kg (930lb) of payload in a low-Earth orbit.

The rocket cleared its umbilical tower at 1616 hours Pacific time (2316 GMT) on Sunday, and took some eight minutes to put itself in an elliptical orbit of 500km by 700km.

The dummy 165kg (364lb) payload was exposed to space but not released.

It was a triumphant moment for Mr Musk who has injected the project with millions of dollars earned from the sale of his two internet financial services firms, including the electronic payment system PayPal.

Three previous attempts to fly the Falcon 1 had been frustrated by technical problems.

Launches two and three were foiled by the inability of the system's two stages to separate properly. The first Falcon mission in March 2006 ended shortly after lift-off because of a fire caused by a leaking fuel line.

SpaceX described Sunday's Falcon 1 as the first privately developed liquid-fuelled launch vehicle to achieve Earth orbit.

"This is a great day for SpaceX and the culmination of an enormous amount of work by a great team," said Mr Musk in a statement. "The data shows we achieved a super-precise orbit insertion middle of the bull's-eye and then went on to coast and restart the second stage, which was icing on the cake."

Next for SpaceX is its much larger Falcon 9 rocket, designed to loft major telecommunications satellites; but also to ferry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

It may make its maiden flight towards the end of the year or early next year.

The US space agency (Nasa) hopes the Falcon 9 can help fill the mission gap that will exist while it develops a successor to the shuttle.

The agency has given SpaceX development money for the purpose under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme.

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