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By , 9 Oct 2012

SpaceX is a privately-owned commercial space company that manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft.

Dragon spacecraft

On May 31 2012, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft in history to visit the International Space Station (ISS). The Dragon was unmanned, but delivered cargo to resupply the ISS. The Dragon returned to Earth with a return cargo of used equipment and scientific samples, and was recovered safely from the Pacific Ocean.

Falcon 9 rocket

The Dragon spacecraft was launched on one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets. Falcon 9 is a two stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene powered launch vehicle. With a height of 70m and a width of 3.6m, it's powerful enough to carry the Dragon into Earth orbit.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch with Dragon spaceship

The Falcon 9 is constructed from a lightweight but strong aluminium lithium alloy and is powered by nine Merlin rocket engines. The nine-engine design means that even if one engine fails, the rocket still has enough power to complete its flight safely.

The Falcon 1 rocket is a smaller version of the Falcon 9 with a single Merlin engine. The Falcon 1 was used to launch a low earth orbiting satellite in 2009, but the Falcon 1 has now been phased out.

A fully commercial space company

Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, owner of PayPal, the company has its headquarters in California and launches its rockets from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

SpaceX is a fully commercial company and operates under a contract with NASA to resupply the ISS with cargo. You can commission a launch of your own if you like, although according to the SpaceX website it will set you back $54 million.

In the future, SpaceX plans to use its Dragon spacecraft to make manned flights, with the first of these planned for 2015. A commercial launch of a geostationary satellite is planned for 2013. It is also developing a Falcon Heavy rocket, which will become the most powerful rocket in operation with a payload twice that of the Space Shuttle. It is envisaged that this will be used for a NASA robotic mission to Mars in 2018.

An IPO is a possibility in the near future, with the company estimated to be worth $1 -2 billion.

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