Spaceflight firm hails successful 5th launch for its Iridium constellation on 1st anniversary of reusable rockets
U.S. private spaceflight company SpaceX on the morning of March 30 completed the delivery of 50 communications satellites into orbit for Iridium Communications on the one year anniversary of reusable rockets.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 7:13 a.m. PDT, carrying 10 satellites for Iridium Communications, as part of the company's Iridium Next constellation. The satellites began deployment about an hour after launch.
"Today, this is our fifth launch for the Iridium constellation, using only three rockets," SpaceX materials engineer Michael Hammersley said during live commentary.
Falcon 9's first stage for the Iridium-5 mission previously supported the Iridium-3 mission from SLC-4E in October 2017. But SpaceX didn't attempt to recover Falcon 9's first stage after the launch.
March 30 was exactly one year to the day after SpaceX first used a Falcon 9 for rocket launch and landing. Since then, the company has frequently been reusing Falcon 9 first stages for later missions, in pursuit of reusing rockets to lower the costs of spaceflights.
"Due to some restrictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA for short, SpaceX will be intentionally ending live video coverage from the second stage just prior to engine shutdown," Hammersley said, without elaborating on what those NOAA restrictions might be.
The successful deployment of all 10 satellites was confirmed about one hour and 12 minutes after liftoff, with much of the action being recorded on Twitter.
"Successful deployment of all 10 @IridiumComm NEXT satellites to low-Earth orbit confirmed," Hawthorne, a California-based company, tweeted.
By using "Mr Steven," a large navigable platform ship with extended "arms" and a net strung between them, SpaceX tried to "catch" one of the two payload fairings that enclosed the satellite at the top of the rocket.
"Attempting recovery of fairing falling down from space with our boat 'Mr Steven.' It's a giant steel & webbing catcher's mitt superstructure on a high-speed ocean ship," Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, tweeted during the launch.
These fairings were separated from the rocket about three minutes after launch.
The value of these fairings is about million, and recovering and reusing them will save money for SpaceX. Currently, a typical Falcon 9 launch costs around million, according to the company.
"Mr Steven is 5 mins away from being under the falling fairing," Musk tweeted after the launch.
SpaceX's previous attempt to catch a Falcon 9 fairing was missed earlier this year.
Toward the future
The mission on March 30, called Iridium-5, launched the fifth set of 10 satellites in a series of 75, with the rest set to be launched by SpaceX for Iridium's next-generation global satellite constellation, Iridium NEXT.
When completed, the constellation will consist of 66 operational satellites and nine spares in orbit. SpaceX launched the first of four missions in 2017, which brought its total to 40 satellites.
The company plans to have launched a total of 75 satellites into orbit by mid-2018.
Iridium is so far the only mobile voice and data satellite communications network that spans the entire globe, including across oceans, airways and polar regions.
According to the company, it is on track to fully replace the world's largest commercial satellite network of low-Earth orbit satellites in what will be one of the largest "tech upgrades" in history.
The satellite communications company has partnered with Thales Alenia Space for the manufacturing, assembling and testing of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites.