Falcon 9 returns to flight with successful Iridium launch
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from here Jan. 14 at 12:54 p.m. Eastern and successfully delivered ten Iridium Communications satellites into polar orbit one hour and 14 minutes later, while the Falcon 9’s first stage successfully landed on a ship off the California coast.
It was the first SpaceX flight since a Falcon 9 exploded Sept. 1 on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, destroying the Amos-6 communications satellite. SpaceX blamed the failure on a helium tank in the rocket’s second stage that ruptured during fueling for a static-fire test, and the company said earlier this month it would adjust the rocket’s fueling process.
The launch marks an important milestone for Iridium, a company eager to begin replacing its 66 global communications satellites with its next-generation constellation. The oldest satellites in Iridium’s existing 66-satellite constellation were launched in 1998.
Despite their advanced age, customers around the world have a 98 percent chance of getting a signal, Matt Desch, Iridium Communications chief executive, said prior to the launch. Nevertheless, Iridium is eager to begin replacing each of its satellites with a new model designed to offer customers more bandwidth and higher data speeds.
With its first two launches, Iridium plans to plug holes in its existing constellation, where aging satellites are no longer functioning. The Jan. 14 launch was aimed at one of those orbital planes. The next launch, scheduled to fly from Vandenberg in April, will fill the second hole, Desch said.
Iridium purchased seven Falcon 9 launches from SpaceX at a total cost of between $450 million and $500 million, Desch said. SpaceX plans to fly ten satellites on each of those missions. The next launch is scheduled for April with subsequent launches occurring every two months. Iridium hopes to have its new constellation in place in early 2018.
SpaceX and Iridium officials attending the launch were extremely pleased the Falcon 9 launch occurred on schedule after multiple delays in recent weeks. Because the ten Iridium satellites needed to reach a specific orbital plane, the launch window was instantaneous. Any delay in the scheduled launch would have meant another 24-hour delay, Desch said.
Approximately eight minutes after launch, SpaceX landed its first stage on the company’s drone ship in the Pacific Ocean called Just Read the Instructions. It was the seventh time SpaceX was able to land its first stage on an uncrewed ship. The Jan. 14 launch was SpaceX’s 28th successful launch.
Iridium declined to comment on reports that the company has purchased an eighth flight from SpaceX. SpaceX briefing materials may be offering a hint of more than the seven announced flights, however, because they say the Jan. 14 flight was “the first of at least 70 satellites that SpaceX will be launching for Iridium’s next generation” constellation.
SpaceX spokesman John Taylor declined to say when Falcon 9 would fly again, saying the company generally leaves those announcements to its customers.