Falcon 9 deploys Iridium satellites after SpaceX ends video citing NOAA’s orders

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX delivered its latest batch of Iridium Next satellites to orbit Friday morning, but stopped its live video feed nine minutes into the launch citing orders from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Falcon 9, in its fifth outing for Iridium Communications in just over a year, lifted off as planned at 10:13 a.m. EDT from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Iridium confirmed shortly before noon that all 10 satellites had reached orbit and transmitted signals.

While SpaceX typically provides live video of its non-classified launches through payload separation, SpaceX ended Friday’s video feed shortly before the rocket’s second-stage engine stopped firing.

A SpaceX engineer narrating Friday’s launch broadcast told viewers the company was required by NOAA to cut the live feed early.

“We’re working with NOAA to address these restrictions in order to hopefully be able to bring you live views from orbit in the future,” the SpaceX engineer said.

NOAA spokesman Chris Vaccaro, indicating SpaceX’s claim caught the agency off guard, said they “are looking into that attribution” by SpaceX.

After the launch, SpaceX said in a statement that it didn’t have the proper license from NOAA to share live views from orbit.

“NOAA recently asserted that the cameras on the second stage, which are used for engineering purposes, qualify as a ‘remote sensing space system’, thereby requiring a provisional license so we could fly on time,” SpaceX said. “The license prohibited SpaceX from airing views from the second stage once on orbit. We don’t expect this restriction once we obtain a full license.”

NOAA, which operates weather satellites and regulates private Earth-observation satellites, requires remote sensing licenses for any spacecraft that can capture images of Earth.

SpaceX said no such restrictions will be imposed on its next launch, an April 2 cargo mission to the International Space Station.

It was not immediately clear why a remote sensing license was an issue for SpaceX on Friday’s mission when SpaceX has live streamed the launch of previous missions without issue.

After launching a Tesla Roadster towards Mars in last month’s debut of Falcon Heavy, SpaceX continued for several hours to provide live views from cameras on the upper stage of the Tesla and the receding Earth.

After ending live video of Friday’s launch, SpaceX used Twitter to provide updates as each satellite separated from the rocket’s upper stage. The mission lasted approximately 75 minutes.

Iridium confirmed the health of the satellites in a post-launch release, saying all 10 “have successfully communicated with the Iridium Satellite Network Operations Center and are preparing to begin testing.” The operator also said its satellite network, used to provide voice and data connectivity for governments, vehicles and other end users, passed 1 million active subscribers just prior to Friday’s launch.

Iridium is launching its entire second-generation constellation of low-Earth-orbit L-band communications satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. Five launches have been completed since January 2017. The remaining three launches are expected to be completed over the next several months.

Friday’s launch brings to 50 the number of Iridium Next satellites in orbit. Once complete, the constellation will consist of 66 active satellites, nine orbiting spares and six ground spares.

Friday’s launch is also the second of two missions that Iridium switched from a brand-new Falcon 9 to a Falcon with a first stage that had been previously flown and successfully recovered. The switch is intended to keep the constellation’s completion on track for the middle of this year.

Friday’s mission used the same first stage booster that orbited 10 Iridium satellites in October.

SpaceX did not seek to recover the booster after the launch, but did deploy a boat nicknamed “Mr. Steven” to attempt to catch one of the payload fairing halves as they fell toward the Pacific Ocean.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, said via Twitter that the air wake from the fairing’s descent interfered with the steering on an attached parafoil. The cords on the GPS-guided parafoil got twisted, causing the fairing to hit the water at a high speed instead of landing more gently in the boat’s catcher’s net.

Musk said SpaceX will conduct helicopter drop tests with payload fairings in the coming weeks to improve recovery efforts.