SpaceX rocket blasts off with 1st satellite for Turkmenistan

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - An unmanned SpaceX rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Monday to put a communications satellite into orbit for the government of Turkmenistan, a first for the Central Asian nation.

After waiting almost an hour for cloudy skies to clear, the 22-story Falcon 9 rocket bolted off its seaside launch pad at 7.03pm.

Perched on top of the rocket was a Spacebus 4000 telecommunications satellite, built by Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture of Thales SA and Finmeccanica SpA .

Once in orbit, the 4,500kg satellite, known as TurkmenAlem52E, will become Turkmenistan's first telecommunications spacecraft, relaying television broadcasts and other services to more than 1.2 billion people in Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, according to Thales Alenia Space. "The launch is a vital first step in Turkmenistan's development as a space nation," Mr Jean Loic Galle, president and chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, said in a SpaceX webcast video before launch.

From its perch 35,888km above Earth, the satellite, designed to last 15 years, will be located in a slot controlled by Monaco. In exchange for letting Turkmenistan operate there, Monaco's satellite operator, Space Systems International, has use of 12 of the spacecraft's Ku-band transponders.

Monday's launch was the 18th for Space Exploration Technologies, the privately owned, California-based company known as SpaceX, and its second in less than two weeks.

SpaceX has been experimenting with landing the rockets on an ocean barge, but skipped the test after Monday's launch because the rocket needed all its fuel to properly position TurkmenAlem52E into its initial orbit.

Landing attempts are expected to resume in June when SpaceX launches its next cargo ship to the International Space Station, which flies about 418km above Earth.