SpaceX Successfully Returns to Flight with Iridium NEXT Launch

SpaceX Successfully Returns to Flight with Iridium NEXT Launch

SpaceX successfully returned its Falcon 9 rocket to flight status today, launching 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.   It also landed the Falcon 9 first stage on one of its autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS) off the California coast, the first such landing for a West Coast launch.  All 10 satellites were successfully placed into their orbits about one hour after launch.

SpaceX has been recovering from a September 1, 2016 incident at its Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL launch pad that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the AMOS-6 communications satellite.  That was not a launch failure.  Instead it occurred two days before the scheduled launch during fueling of the rocket for a routine pre-launch static fire test.

SpaceX’s investigation did not identify a single definitive cause, but the company concluded that one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the rocket’s second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank failed.  The COPVs contain helium.  The failure occurred due to “accumulation of super chilled LOX or SOX [solid oxygen] in buckles under the overwrap.”  In the short term, the solution is to use warmer helium and helium loading operations used successfully in the past.

This is the first of seven SpaceX launches for Iridium, which operates a constellation of 66 operational satellites that provide mobile voice and data communications. The 10 Iridium NEXT satellites launched today are the first of 70 that will replace the original constellation. The satellites are in 6 planes of 11 satellites each, all in high inclination orbits that dictate launches from Vandenberg rather than Cape Canaveral so the rocket’s flight path avoids populated areas.

The satellites are launched 10 at a time because that is the maximum capacity of the Falcon 9 rocket according to a tweet from Iridium CEO Matt Desch (@IridiumBoss), who added that they have “an elaborate plan to insert some sats and drift others to get 11 into each plane.”

The new satellites are more powerful, have higher data speeds, and offer new services like the ability to track aircraft around the world in real time, a service that will be provided by Aireon.

SpaceX also successfully landed the Falcon 9’s first stage on one its ASDS ships.   The one used today is named Just Read the Instructions.  (The other is Of Course I Still Love You.)  The company has recovered several first stages from East Coast launches, but this is only the second time it has tried a landing with a West Coast launch.  The first attempt failed when one of the four landing legs did not lock into position.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage from Iridium NEXT launch lands on drone ship Just Read the Instructions off the California coast, January 14, 2017.  Screengrab from SpaceX webcast.

There was no such problem today and a camera aboard the first stage showed its descent and touchdown right on the “X” on the drone ship.   SpaceX is recovering its first stages with the goal of reusing them and thereby reducing launch costs.

The Falcon 9 was launched from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) today, a launch pad it leases from the Air Force.  It also leases SLC-40 at CCAFS, which was badly damaged by the September 1 incident, as well as NASA’s Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, which is adjacent to CCAFS.  SpaceX plans to build its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.

Note:  This article was updated once the satellites were successfully deployed.

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