SpaceX Accomplishes Double Headed American Space Spectacular – 2 Launches and 2 Landings in 2 Days from 2 Coasts: Gallery

Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 25 at 1:25 p.m. PDT (4:25 p.m. EDT) carrying ten Iridium Next mobile voice and data relay communications satellites to low Earth orbit on the Iridium-2 mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – With Sunday’s successful Falcon 9 blastoff for Iridium Communications joining rocketry’s history books, Elon Musk’s SpaceX accomplished a double headed American space spectacular this weekend with 2 launches and 2 booster landings in 2 days from 2 coasts for 2 commercial customers – in a remarkably rapid turnaround feat that set a new record for minimum time between launches for SpaceX.

On Sunday, June 25 at 1:25 p.m. PDT (4:25 p.m. EDT; 2025 UTC) a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a second set of ten Iridium Next mobile voice and data relay communications satellites to low Earth orbit on the Iridium-2 mission from SLC-4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“All sats healthy and talking,” tweeted Matt Desch, Iridium Communications CEO, soon after launch and confirmation that all 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were successfully deployed from their second stage satellite dispensers. Iridium is a global leader in mobile voice and data satellite communications.

“It was a great day!”

The US West Coast Falcon 9 liftoff of the Iridium-2 mission from California on Sunday, June 25 took place barely 48 hours after the US East Coast Falcon 9 liftoff of the BulgariaSat-1 mission from Florida on Friday, June 23.

Without a doubt, Musk’s dream of rocket reusability as a here and now means to slash the high costs of launching to space and thereby broaden access to space for more players is rapidly taking shape.

Following separation of the first and second stages, the Falcon 9’s 15 story tall first stage successfully landed on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship ocean going platform stationed several hundred miles out in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, despite challenging weather conditions.

Indeed the droneships position was changed in the final minutes before launch due to the poor weather.

“Droneship repositioned due to extreme weather. Will be tight,” tweeted Musk minutes before liftoff.

The 156 foot tall booster touched down about 8 and ½ minutes after liftoff from Vandenberg AFB.

Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 25 at 1:25 p.m. PDT (4:25 p.m. EDT) carrying ten Iridium Next mobile voice and data relay communications satellites to low Earth orbit on the Iridium-2 mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: SpaceX

The launch, landing and deployment of the 10 Iridium Next satellites was all broadcast live on a SpaceX webcast.

The perfectly executed Iridium-2 and BulgariaSat-1 launch and landing duo clearly demonstrates the daunting capability of SpaceX’s privately owned and operated engineering team to pull off such a remarkable feat in nimble fashion.

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The stage was set for the unprecedented Falcon 9 launch doubleheader just a week ago when SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk tweeted out the daring space goal after all went well with the Florida Space Coast’s static hotfire test for the first in line BulgariaSat-1 flight.

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Check out the expanding gallery of Bulgariasat-1 eyepopping photos and videos from several space journalist colleagues and friends and myself.

Click back as the gallery grows !

Liftoff of used SpaceX Falcon 9 at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017 delivering BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Sunday’s Iridium 2 flight was Iridium Communications second contracted launch with SpaceX.

“This payload of 10 satellites was deployed into low-Earth orbit, approximately one hour after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg,” Iridium said in a statement.

The Mini Cooper sized Iridium NEXT satellites each weigh 1,900 pounds, totaling approximately 19,000 pounds placed into space. That is the weight of a semi tractor trailer truck!

The inaugural Iridium 1 launch with the first ten Iridium Next satellites took place successfully at the start of this year on Jan. 14, 2017.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

The new set of ten Iridium Next mobile relay satellites were delivered into a circular orbit at an altitude of 625 kilometers (388 miles) above Earth.

They were released one at a time from a pair of specially designed satellite dispensers at approximately 100 second intervals.

“Since the successful January 14, 2017 launch, Iridium NEXT satellites have already been integrated into the operational constellation and are providing service. The first eight operational Iridium NEXT satellites are already providing superior call quality and faster data speeds with increased capacity to Iridium customers. The two additional satellites from the first launch are continuing to drift to their operational orbital plane, where upon arrival they will begin providing service.”

Iridium 2 is the second of eight planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

At least 75 will be launched by SpaceX to low-Earth orbit, with 66 making up the operational constellation.

The inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT satellites in January 2017 started the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

Nine of the 81 will serve as on-orbit spares and six as ground spares.

“Now, and for approximately the next 45 days, these newly launched satellites will undergo a series of testing and validation procedures, ensuring they are ready for integration with the operational constellation,” said Iridium.

“We are thrilled with yesterday’s success. These new satellites are functioning well, and we are pressing forward with the testing process,” said Scott Smith, chief operating officer at Iridium.

“Since the last launch, the team at our Satellite Network Operations Center (SNOC) has been anxiously awaiting this new batch of satellites. There is a lot of work to do, and we are up for the challenge.”

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

BulgariaSat-1 and Iridium-2 count as the eighth and ninth SpaceX launches of 2017.

Including these two ocean platform landings, SpaceX has now successfully recovered 13 boosters; 5 by land and 8 by sea, over the past 18 months.

Both landing droneships are now headed back into their respective coastal ports.

It’s a feat straight out of science fiction but aimed at drastically slashing the cost of access to space as envisioned by Musk.

Liftoff of used SpaceX Falcon 9 at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017 delivering BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

Watch this BulgariaSat-1 launch video from KSC pad 39A

Video Caption: Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 23, 2017 from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center carrying BulgariaSat-1 TV broadband satellite to geosynchronous orbit for BulgariaSat, which is Bulgaria’s 1st GeoComSat – as seen in this remote video taken at the pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

BulgariaSat-1 streaks to orbit after June 23, 2017 liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
BulgariaSat-1 arcs over eastwards to Africa as it streaks to orbit after June 23, 2017 liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida- as seen from the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
BulgariaSat-1 liftoff atop SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 23, 2017 from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as seen from Titusville, FL residential area. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
BulgariaSat-1 liftoff atop SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 23, 2017 from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as seen from Titusville, FL residential area. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
BulgariaSat-1 launches June 23, 2017 on SpaceX Falcon 9 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as seen from Titusville, FL residential area. Credit: Wesley Baskin
BulgariaSat-1 launches June 23, 2017 on SpaceX Falcon 9 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as seen from Titusville, FL residential area. Credit: Wesley Baskin
Launch 2nd recycled SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida – as seen from the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Falcon 9 Comes Roaring Back to Life with Dramatically Successful Iridium Fleet Launch and Ocean Ship Landing

Picture perfect blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying fleet of ten advanced Iridium NEXT comsats to low Earth orbit. Credit: SpaceX

With Billions and Billions of dollars at stake and their reputation riding on the line, SpaceX came roaring back to life by dramatically executing a picture perfect Falcon 9 rocket launch this morning (Jan. 14) that successfully delivered a fleet of ten advanced Iridium NEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites to orbit while simultaneously recovering the first stage on a ship at sea off the west coast of California.

BREAKING NEWS – check back for updates.

The primary goal of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was to deploy the payload of the first ten Iridium Next communication satellites to low Earth orbit on the Iridium-1 mission.

“Thanks @elonmusk – a perfect flight! Loved watching sats deploy with you in the control room,” tweeted Matt Desch, Iridium Communications CEO, soon after receiving full confirmation that all 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were successfully deployed from their second stage satellite dispensers.

“More to go, but now to celebrate!!”

The inaugural ten will serve as the vanguard of a fleet that will eventually comprise 81 satellites.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage successfully soft lands on drone ship stationed in the Pacific Ocean off California coast after launching on Jan. 14, 2017, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying fleet of ten advanced Iridium NEXT comsats to low Earth orbit. Credit: SpaceX

Today’s successful blastoff took place barely four and a half months after another Falcon 9 and its $200 million Israeli commercial payload were suddenly destroyed during a prelaunch fueling test on the Florida Space Coast on Sept. 1, 2016.

Another launch failure would have dealt a devastating blow to confidence in SpaceX’s hard won reputation.

The Sept. 1, 2016 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time. Both occurred inside the second stage and called into question the rockets reliability.

The 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket was rolled out from its processing hangar to the launch pad and raised vertically yesterday.

Picture perfect blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying fleet of ten advanced Iridium NEXT comsats to low Earth orbit. Credit: SpaceX

Today’s entire land, landing and satellite deployment event was shown live on a SpaceX hosted webcast. It offered extremely sharp views of Saturdays on time liftoff at 9:54:34 a.m. PST or 12:54:34 p.m. EST, and unbelievably clear images of the first stage descending back to Earth towards a tiny drone ship.

“Overall a wonderfully nominal mission,” gushed the SpaceX commentator during the webcast.

Since the Iridium 1 mission only had an instantaneous launch opportunity precisely at 9:54:34 a.m. PST or 12:54:34 p.m. EST, there was no margin for any technical or weather delays. And none happened. Although an errant boat had to be quickly escorted out of the exclusion zone less than 20 minutes before blastoff.

Confirmation of a successful deployment of all 10 Iridium NEXT satellites came at about T plus 1 hour and 17 minutes after liftoff from Vandenberg.

“So, so excited – finally breathing again!” tweeted Desch.

“Thanks for all the great vibes – I felt it! All 10 sats deployed; good orbit; good telemetry! WOW.”

The mobile relay satellites were delivered into a circular orbit at an altitude of 625 kilometers (388 miles) above Earth.

They were released one at a time from a pair of specially designed satellite dispensers at approximately 100 second intervals.

“It was a clean sweep, 10 for 10,” said SpaceX commentator John Insprucker during the live webcast.

“All the bridge wires show open, and that is a conclusion of the primary mission today, a great one for the first stage, second stage, and the customer’s satellites deployed into a good orbit.”

The Iridium NEXT satellites were built by Thales Alenia and Orbital ATK.

In the final moments before the propulsive landing, you could read the lettering on the “Just Read the Instructions” drone ship as the engine was firing to slow the descent and the landing legs deployed.

Really there was no cutout or loss of signal the whole way down. So the world could watch every key moment as it happened in real time.

The first stage softly landed approx. 8 minutes and 18 seconds after the California liftoff.

“First stage has landed on Just Read the Instructions,” SpaceX tweeted post landing.

This was the first launch by SpaceX since last August from the Florida Space Coast, and it came off without a hitch.

Iridium 1 is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

At least 70 will be launched by SpaceX.

The inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT satellites will start the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying ten Iridium NEXT comsats to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

This Falcon 9 was been outfitted with four landing lags and grid fins for a controlled landing on the tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 arrives at mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this space for continuing updates on SpaceX.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium
Mission patch for Iridium-1 mission showing launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for Iridium Communications, and planned landing of the first stage on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

SpaceX Set for High Stakes Falcon 9 Blastoff Resumption with Iridium Satellite Fleet on Jan. 14 – Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying ten Iridium NEXT comsats to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

The stakes could almost not be higher for SpaceX as the firm readies their twice failed Falcon 9 rocket for a blastoff resumption on Saturday morning, Jan. 14 carrying the vanguard of the commercial Iridium NEXT satellite fleet to orbit from their California rocket base.

Barely four and a half months after another Falcon 9 and its $200 million Israeli commercial payload were suddenly destroyed during a prelaunch fueling test on the Florida Space Coast on Sept. 1, 2016, SpaceX says all systems are GO for the ‘Return to Flight’ launch of a new Falcon 9 on the Iridium-1 mission from the California coast tomorrow.

Another launch failure would deal a devastating blow to confidence in SpaceX’s hard won reputation – so ‘Failure is Not an Option’ as they say in the space business.

The Sept. 1, 2016 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time. Both occurred inside the second stage and called into question the rockets reliability.

The 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket has been rolled out from its processing hangar to the launch pad and raised vertically.

“Beautiful picture of our ride to space tomorrow on the launch pad this morning!” tweeted Matt Desch, Iridium Communications CEO, featuring the lead photo in this story.

A license for permission to proceed with the launch originally last Sunday was only granted by the FAA last Friday, Jan. 6. But poor California weather in the form of stormy rains and high winds forced further delays to Saturday.

Today, Friday the 13th, it’s T-Minus 1 Day to the inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation Iridium NEXT communications satellites is slated for 9:54:39 am PST or 5:54:39 pm UTC from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The Iridium 1 mission only has an instantaneous launch opportunity precisely at 9:54:34 a.m. PST or 12:54:34 p.m. EST.

You can watch the launch live via a SpaceX webcast starting about 20 minutes prior to the planned liftoff time:

The launch will be broadcast at : http://www.spacex.com/webcast

Weather forecasters currently predict about a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions at launch time.

Sunday, Jan. 15 is available as a back-up launch opportunity in case of a delay for any reason including technical and weather related issues.

The Iridium NEXT payload has been secured to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at T-2 days to launch. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

“The teams from Iridium, SpaceX and our partners are in the homestretch for the first launch of the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation,” said satellite owner Iridium Communications.

Meanwhile the launch teams have completed the countdown dress rehearsal’ and Launch Readiness Review in anticipation of the morning liftoff.

“Final preparations are being made for tomorrow’s inaugural launch, and with that comes a number of high-stakes verifications, involving all parties. Traditionally referred to as the ‘countdown dress rehearsal’ and ‘Launch Readiness Review’ (LRR), these milestones represent the final hurdles to clearing the path for the January 14th launch.”

“The countdown dress rehearsal and LRR include several prelaunch inspections and quality control measures. These include final clearances for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Iridium NEXT payload, SpaceX and Iridium® ground infrastructure and associated team member responsibilities.”

Iridium says that every precaution has been taken to ensure a successful launch.

“There are so many variables that need to be considered when finalizing launch preparations, and a slight deviation or unexpected behavior by any of them can jeopardize the launch integrity,” said Iridium COO Scott Smith, in a statement.

“We’ve perfected the necessary procedures, taken every precaution we can imagine, and tomorrow, after what has felt like centuries, we’ll take the first step on a long-awaited journey to revolutionize satellite communications. The success of today’s events has brought us to an apex moment.”

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Iridium 1 is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

At least 70 will be launched by SpaceX.

The inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT satellites will start the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

Mission patch for Iridium-1 mission showing launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for Iridium Communications, and planned landing of the first stage on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

After the Sept .1 calamity SpaceX conducted a four month long investigation seeking to determine the root cause.

And it was just last Friday, Jan. 6, that the FAA finally granted SpaceX a license to launch the ‘Return to Flight’ Falcon 9 mission – as I confirmed with the FAA.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

“SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose.”

The SpaceX investigation report into the total loss of the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload has not been released at this time. The FAA has oversight responsibility to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation and ensure the protection of public safety.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In addition to the launch, SpaceX plans to continue its secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage via a propulsive soft landing – as done several times previously and witnessed by this author.

The Iridium-1 mission patch featured herein highlights both the launch and landing objectives.

The goal is to eventually recycle and reuse the first stage – and thereby dramatically slash launch costs per Musk’s vision.

This Falcon 9 has been outfitted with four landing legs and grid fins for a controlled landing on a tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

Watch this space for continuing updates on SpaceX.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Poor Weather Pushes SpaceX Return Debut with Revolutionary Iridium Relay Sats to Jan. 14

Mission patch for Iridium-1 mission showing launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for Iridium Communications, and planned landing of the first stage on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

In the face of unrelenting days of very poor weather and a range conflict with another very critical rocket launch, SpaceX is pushing back the return debut of their private Falcon 9 rocket carrying a revolutionary fleet of voice and data commercial communications relay satellites for Iridium to no earlier than next weekend, Jan 14.

Earlier indications of a nearly weeks long launch delay from Monday, Jan. 9 to next Saturday morning, Jan. 14, were officially confirmed today, Jan. 8, by SpaceX and their Iridium Communications customer.

“Launch moving due to high winds and rains at Vandenberg,” SpaceX announced today, Jan. 8.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation Iridium NEXT communications satellites had been slated for 10:22 am PST (1:22 pm EST), Jan. 9, 2017 from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The advanced next satellites will start the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

And it was less than 48 hours ago on Friday, Jan. 6, that the FAA finally granted SpaceX a license to launch the ‘Return to Flight’ Falcon 9 mission – as I confirmed with the FAA here.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

“SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose.”

The SpaceX investigation report into the total loss of the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload has not been released at this time. The FAA has oversight responsibility to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation and ensure the protection of public safety.

The private rocket – developed by CEO Elon Musk and his company – has been grounded for four months since a catastrophic launch pad explosion last September suddenly destroyed another Falcon 9 and its $200 million Israeli owned satellite during a prelaunch fueling test on the Florida Space Coast.

The Sept. 1, 2016 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time. Both occurred inside the second stage and called into question the rockets reliability.

The prognosis of a week of bad California weather had been known for some time and finally prompted an official announcement just 24 hours before the hoped for launch.

“With high winds and rain in the forecast at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the first launch of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites is now planned for January 14th at 9:54:34 am PST with a back-up date of January 15th,” Iridium officials elaborated in a statement.

The mission, known as Iridium 1, has an instantaneous launch opportunity at 9:54:34 a.m. PST (12:54:34 p.m. EST).

Next Sunday, Jan. 15 is available as a back-up launch opportunity in case of a delay for any reason including technical and weather related issues.

Furthermore, humorous pleas by Iridium CEO Matt Desch for divine intervention went unheeded !

“Can now confirm: new launch date Jan 14 at 9:54am pst. Bad weather the cause. Anti-rain dances didn’t work – oh well. Cal needs rain?” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch when he threw in the towel this morning by tweet.

Things change fast and furious in the rocket business, and flexibility is the name of the game if you want to survive the frequently changing landscape.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

A contributing factor to the delay is a range conflict with an upcoming Atlas rocket launch for the U.S National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) at Vandenberg AFB.

“Other range conflicts this week results in next available launch date being Jan 14,” SpaceX confirmed.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V is scheduled to launch the super secret NROL-79 spy satellite for the NRO on Jan. 26.

Prior to the launch, ULA must conduct a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) of the Atlas V by fueling it with propellants to confirm its readiness to launch.

The clandestine NROL-79 intelligence-gathering payload is critical to US national defense. Surly it was manufactured over a time span of several years at an unknown classified cost probably amounting to billions of dollars.

For the Iridium – 1 mission the 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 will carry a fleet of ten Iridium NEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites to orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca, for Iridium Communications.

Video Caption: Iridium NEXT: Changing the Paradigm In Space Communications. Credit: Iridium/SpaceX

Iridium 1 is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

The FAA license approved on Jan. 6 covers all seven launches.

“Space Explorations Technologies is authorized to conduct seven launches of Falcon 9 version 1.2 vehicles from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base with each flight transporting ten Iridium NEXT payloads to low Earth orbit.

The license also allows SpaceX to land the first stage on a droneship at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 arrives at mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So besides the launch, SpaceX plans to continue its secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage via a propulsive soft landing – as done several times previously and witnessed by this author.

The Iridium-1 mission patch featured herein highlights both the launch and landing objectives.

The goal is to eventually recycle and reuse the first stage – and thereby dramatically slash launch costs per Musk’s vision.

This Falcon 9 has been outfitted with four landing lags and grid fins for a controlled landing on a tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

Desch says that all seven of his Falcon’s will be new – not reused.

“All our seven F9s are new,” Desch tweeted.

On Jan. 2, SpaceX issued a statement ascribing the Sept. 1, 2016 AMOS-6 launch pad anomaly as being traced to a failure wherein one of three high pressure helium storage tanks located inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank of the Falcon 9 rocket suddenly burst. Cold helium is used to pressurize the propellant tanks. They provided some but not many technical details.

The failure apparently originated at a point where the helium tank “buckles” and accumulates oxygen – “leading to ignition” of the highly flammable superchilled oxygen propellant in the second stage when it came into contact with carbon fibers covering the helium tanks – also known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs).

“Friction ignition” between the carbon fibers acting as a friction source and super chilled oxygen led to the calamitous explosion, SpaceX concluded was the most likely cause of the disaster.

Watch this space for continuing updates as SpaceX rolls the rocket out from the processing hangar and we watch the saga of the foggy weather forecast with great anticipation !

SpaceX rocket processing hangar at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, fogged by common fog. Credit Julian Leek

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

FAA Accepts Accident Report, Grants SpaceX License for Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, in this file photo ahead of Jason-3 launch for NASA on Jan. 17, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today “accepted the investigation report” regarding the results of SpaceX’s investigation into the cause of the company’s catastrophic Sept. 1, 2016 launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket in Florida, and simultaneously “granted a license” for the ‘Return to Flight’ blastoff of the private rocket from California as soon as next week – the FAA confirmed today to Universe Today, Friday, Jan. 6.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

All SpaceX launches were immediately grounded when their Falcon 9 booster and its $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli communications satellite payload were suddenly destroyed without warning during a routine preflight fueling test on Sept. 1, 2016, at pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

With today’s definitive action from the FAA the path is now clear for Hawthorne, Ca based SpaceX to resume launches of the Falcon 9 rocket as soon as Monday, Jan. 9. It will carry a fleet of ten Iridium NEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites to orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca, for Iridium Communications.

“SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose,” Price added.

The SpaceX investigation report has not been released at this time.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation IridiumNEXT communications satellites is slated for 10:22 am PST (1:22 pm EST), Jan. 9, 2017 from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Furthermore all technical systems would appear to be ‘GO’ for the commercial rocket and commercial payload, following the official announcement by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that the Falcon 9 rocket successfully passed its normally routine prelaunch static fire test of the first stage engines, on Thursday, Jan. 5.

“Hold-down firing of @SpaceX Falcon 9 at Vandenberg Air Force completed,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted Jan. 5.

“All systems are go for launch next week.”

“Payload/rocket mating underway,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch elaborated and confirmed via twitter today.

The static fire test involves briefly firing the first stage Merlin 1D engines for several seconds while the rocket remains anchored to the launch pad. The test is run to confirm that all the engines and rocket systems are technically ready for launch.

In contrast to AMOS-6, the Iridium NEXT payload was not installed atop the rocket this time during Thursday’s test to keep them safely and prudently stored out of harms way – just in case another unexpected mishap were to occur.

Members of the Iridium Communications team were on hand to observe Thursday’s static fire test first hand.

“With great anticipation, team members observed the static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will deliver the first ten Iridium NEXT satellites to orbit. Iridium is excited to share that the test is complete, and that SpaceX is reporting that the rocket should be ready for the first launch of the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation next week,” said Iridium officials.

“The target launch date is now Monday, January 9th at 10:22 am PST, weather permitting.”

And since the launch window is instantaneous, there is no margin for error or delay from either a technical or weather standpoint.

Currently, next weeks weather outlook is not promising with a forecast of rain and clouds on Monday morning and beyond. But only time will tell.

“With completion of the static fire test, our first launch has just gotten that much closer,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer at Iridium, in a statement.

“The Iridium team has been anxiously awaiting launch day, and we’re now all the more excited to send those first ten Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.”

“Looks like we’re good to go for Monday!” Desch tweeted today.

“Payload/rocket mating underway; we’ll just have to see about the weather. Anti-rain dances, anyone?”

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Also known as Iridium 1, this is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation – eventually consisting of 81 advanced satellites.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Indeed the FAA license approved today covers all seven launches.

“Space Explorations Technologies is authorized to conduct seven launches of Falcon 9 version 1.2 vehicles from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base with each flight transporting ten Iridium NEXT payloads to low Earth orbit.

The license also allows SpaceX to land the first stage on a droneship at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

After the Sept. 1 accident at pad 40, SpaceX initiated a joint investigation to determine the root cause with the FAA, NASA, the US Air Force and industry experts who have been “working methodically through an extensive fault tree to investigate all plausible causes.”

On Jan. 2, SpaceX issued a statement ascribing the Sept. 1 anomaly as being traced to a failure wherein one of three high pressure gaseous helium storage tanks located inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank of the Falcon 9 rocket suddenly burst. Helium is used to pressurize the propellant tanks. They provided some but not many technical details.

The failure apparently originated at a point where the helium tank “buckles” and accumulates oxygen – “leading to ignition” of the highly flammable liquid oxygen propellant in the second stage when it came into contact with carbon fibers covering the helium tank.

The helium tanks – also known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) – are used in both stages of the Falcon 9 to store cold helium which is used to maintain tank pressure.

SpaceX says investigators identified “an accumulation of super chilled liquid oxygen LOX or SOX in buckles under the overwrap” as “credible causes for the COPV failure.”

Apparently the super chilled LOX or SOX can pool in the buckles and react with carbon fibers in the overwrap – which act as an ignition source. “Friction ignition” between the carbon fibers and super chilled oxygen led to the calamitous explosion.

The Sept. 1 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time and both occurred inside the second stage.

Up close look at a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage and payload fairing from the JCSAT-16 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Both Falcon 9 rocket failures took place inside the second stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

If the Iridium liftoff is successful, SpaceX hopes to resume launches on the Florida Space Coast soon thereafter involving both commercial and NASA payloads using pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX could launch an EchoStar communications satellite later in January and a cargo resupply mission for NASA to the ISS in February from KSC.

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dragon CRS-9 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this space for continuing updates as SpaceX rolls the rocket out from the processing hangar and we watch the foggy weather forecast with great anticipation !

SpaceX rocket processing hangar at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, fogged by common fog. Credit Julian Leek

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Falcon 9 erected at Vandenberg AFB launch pad in California in advance of Jason-3 launch for NASA on Jan. 17, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Finds Failure Cause, Announces Sunday Jan. 8 as Target for Falcon 9 Flight Resumption

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After an intensive four month investigation into why a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded without warning on the launch pad last September, the company today announced the failures likely cause as well as plans of a rapid resumption of flights as soon as next Sunday, Jan. 8, from their California launch complex – carrying a lucrative commercial payload of 10 advanced mobile relay satellites to orbit for Iridium Communications.

“Targeting return to flight from Vandenberg with the @IridiumComm NEXT launch on January 8,” SpaceX announced on their website today, Monday, Jan. 2., 2017.

“Our date is now public. Next Sunday morning, Jan 8 at 10:28:07 pst. Iridium NEXT launch #1 flies!” Iridium Communications CEO Matt Desch quickly confirmed by tweet today, Jan 2.

SpaceX has been dealing with the far reaching and world famous fallout from the catastrophic launch pad explosion that eviscerated a Falcon 9 and its expensive $200 million Israeli Amos-6 commercial payload in Florida without warning, during a routine preflight fueling test on Sept. 1, 2016, at pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The first ten IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca., in early 2017. Credit: Iridium

After the Sept. 1 accident at pad 40, SpaceX initiated a joint investigation to determine the root cause with the FAA, NASA, the US Air Force and industry experts who have been “working methodically through an extensive fault tree to investigate all plausible causes.”

“We have been working closely with NASA, and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and our commercial customers to understand it,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Via the “fault tree analysis” the Sept. 1 anomaly has been traced to a failure in one of three gaseous helium storage tanks located inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank of the Falcon 9 rocket, according to a statement released by SpaceX today which provided some but not many technical details.

The failure apparently originated at a point where the helium tank “buckles” and accumulates oxygen – “leading to ignition” of the highly flammable liquid oxygen propellant in the second stage.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

The helium tanks – also known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) – are used in both stages of the Falcon 9 to store cold helium which is used to maintain tank pressure.

“The accident investigation team worked systematically through an extensive fault tree analysis and concluded that one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank failed.”

“Each COPV consists of an aluminum inner liner with a carbon overwrap.”

“Specifically, the investigation team concluded the failure was likely due to the accumulation of oxygen between the COPV liner and overwrap in a void or a buckle in the liner, leading to ignition and the subsequent failure of the COPV.”

SpaceX says investigators identified “an accumulation of super chilled LOX or SOX in buckles under the overwrap” as “credible causes for the COPV failure.”

Apparently the super chilled LOX or SOX can pool in the buckles and react with carbon fibers in the overwrap – which act as an ignition source.

As part of the most recent upgrade to the Falcon 9, SpaceX changed their fueling procedure to include the use of densified oxygen – or super chilled oxygen – in order to load more propellant into the same volume, at a lower temperature of about minus 340 degrees Fahrenheit for SOX vs. about minus 298 degrees Fahrenheit for LOX.

In essence SpaceX gets more gallons of super chilled oxygen into the same tank volume because of the higher density – and they don’t have to change the rocket’s dimensions.

This temperature change enables the Falcon 9 to launch heavier payloads.

However the side effect of the superchilling process is that the oxygen is now very close to its freezing point – with the potential to partially solidify , rather than being a completely free flowing liquid. Then the resulting friction with carbon fibers can ignite the pooled oxygen resulting in an instantaneous fireball and destruction of the rocket – as happened to Falcon 9 and Amos-6 at pad 40 on Sept. 1, 2016.

“Investigators concluded that super chilled LOX can pool in these buckles under the overwrap. When pressurized, oxygen pooled in this buckle can become trapped; in turn, breaking fibers or friction can ignite the oxygen in the overwrap, causing the COPV to fail.”

Very concerning to this author is the fact that the helium loading conditions are confirmed to be so low that they can actually freeze the liquid oxygen into solid form. Thus it cannot flow freely and significantly increases the chances of a “friction ignition.”

This same Falcon 9 rocket will be used to launch our astronauts to the ISS in 2018 – seated inside a Crew Dragon atop the helium tank bathed in super chilled LOX.

“Investigators determined that the loading temperature of the helium was cold enough to create solid oxygen (SOX), which exacerbates the possibility of oxygen becoming trapped as well as the likelihood of friction ignition.”

SpaceX says they will address the causes of the mishap through a mix of both short term and long term “corrective actions.”

“The corrective actions address all credible causes and focus on changes which avoid the conditions that led to these credible causes.”

The short term fixes involve simpler changes to the COPV configuration and modifying the helium loading conditions.

“In the short term, this entails changing the COPV configuration to allow warmer temperature helium to be loaded, as well as returning helium loading operations to a prior flight proven configuration based on operations used in over 700 successful COPV loads.”

So it remains to be seen if SpaceX continues the use of densified oxygen or not in the near term.

The long term fixes involve changing the COPV hardware itself and will take longer to implement. They are also likely to be more effective – but only time will tell.

“In the long term, SpaceX will implement design changes to the COPVs to prevent buckles altogether, which will allow for faster loading operations.”

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation IridiumNEXT communications satellites will take place from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – assuming the required approval is first granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

No Falcon 9 launch will occur until the FAA gives the ‘GO.’

Furthermore, in anticipation of announcing the targeted ‘Return to Flight’ launch date, technicians have already processed the Falcon 9 rocket for the ‘Return to Flight’ blastoff with the vanguard of a fleet of IridiumNEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites for Iridium Communications – as I reported last week in my story here – and subsequently tweeted by Iridium CEO Matt Desch saying “Nice recap.”

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Last week, the first ten IridiumNEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites were fueled, stacked and tucked inside the nose cone of the Falcon 9 rocket designated as SpaceX’s ‘Return to Flight’ launcher in order to enable a blastoff as soon as possible after an approval is received from the FAA.

“Iridium is pleased with SpaceX’s announcement on the results of the September 1 anomaly as identified by their accident investigation team, and their plans to target a return to flight on January 8 with the first Iridium NEXT launch” Iridium Communications said on their website today, Jan. 2.

Another milestone to watch for is the first stage engine static fire test that SpaceX routinely conducts several days prior to the launch. Thats exactly the same type test where the Falcon 9 blew up in Florida some five minutes before the short Merlin 1D engine ignition to confirm readiness for the real launch that had been planned for 2 days later.

Iridium’s SpaceX Falcon9 rocket in processing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, getting ready for launch in early Jan. 2017. Credit: Iridium

The Iridium 1 mission is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches – totaling 70 satellites.

“Iridium is replacing its existing constellation by sending 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket over 7 different launches,” says Iridium.

The goal of this privately contracted mission is to deliver the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit to inaugurate what will be a new constellation of satellites dedicated to mobile voice and data communications.

Iridium eventually plans to launch a constellation of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit.

“At least 70 of which will be launched by SpaceX,” per Iridium’s contract with SpaceX.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile pad 40, which was heavily damaged during the Sept. 1 explosion, is undergoing extensive repairs and refurbishments to bring it back online.

It is not known when pad 40 will be fit to resume Falcon 9 launches.

In the interim, SpaceX plans to initially resume launches from the Florida Space Coast at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from pad 39A, the former shuttle pad that SpaceX has leased from NASA.

Commercial SpaceX launches at KSC could start from pad 39A sometime in early 2017 – after modifications for the Falcon 9 are completed.

Up close look at a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage and payload fairing from the JCSAT-16 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Both Falcon 9 rocket failures took place inside the second stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Sept. 1 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time and called into question the rockets overall reliability. Both incidents involved the second stage helium system, but SpaceX maintains that they are unrelated.

The first Falcon 9 failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion in the second stage about two and a half minutes after liftoff, during the Dragon CRS-7 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author. The accident was traced to a failed strut holding the helium tank inside the liquid oxygen tank. The helium tank dislodged and ultimately ruptured the second stage as the first stage was still firing resulting in a total loss of the rocket and payload.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Iridium Satellites Fueled and Tucked In For SpaceX Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’ Blastoff

The first ten IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca., in early 2017. Credit: Iridium

Technicians have fueled, stacked and tucked the first ten advanced IridiumNEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites inside the nose cone of a Falcon 9 rocket designated as SpaceX’s ‘Return to Flight’ launcher – potentially as early as next week – from their west coast launch pad on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“Milestone Alert: The first ten #IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing,” Iridium Communications announced on the company website on Thursday, Dec. 29.

The excitement of a possibly imminent liftoff is clearly building – at least for Iridium Communications and their CEO Matt Desch.

“Our first 10 #IridiumNEXT satellites are all fueled now, tucked in and dreaming of flying in space. Very. Soon. Happy Holidays!” Iridium Communications CEO Matt Desch tweeted on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2016.

But SpaceX is still dealing with the fallout from the catastrophic launch pad explosion that eviscerated a Falcon 9 and its expensive commercial payload in Florida without warning, during a routine fueling test on Sept. 1, 2016.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation IridiumNEXT communications satellites from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 4-East could come as soon as next week – in early January 2017 perhaps as soon as Jan. 7.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had said he hoped to resume Falcon 9 launches before the end of this year 2016 – while investigating the root cause of the devastating mishap.

But the launch has been repeatedly postponed and pushed off into 2017 while investigators plumb the data for clues and fix whatever flaws are uncovered.

“Iridium’s @Falcon9_rocket in processing at @VandenbergAFB, getting ready for our launch in early Jan. Progress! #Thistimeitsforreal!” Desch elaborated.

Nevertheless, there has been no official statement issued by either SpaceX or Iridium Communications announcing a specific target launch date.

And the liftoff is completely dependent on achieving FAA approval for the Falcon 9 launch.

“This launch is contingent upon the FAA’s approval of SpaceX’s return to flight following the anomaly that occurred on September 1, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida,” Iridium said in a prior statement, reported here.

All SpaceX Falcon 9 launches immediately ground to a halt following the colossal eruption of a fireball from the Falcon 9 at the launch pad that suddenly destroyed the rocket and completely consumed its $200 million Israeli Amos-6 commercial payload on Sept. 1 during a routine fueling and planned static fire engine test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The explosive anomaly resulted from a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank and subsequent ignition of the highly flammable oxygen propellant.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and Iridium are preparing the payload and rocket for launch as soon as possible after FAA approval is granted.

“Satellites have been fueled, pressurized & dispenser tiers are being stacked as we move closer to first launch #IridiumNEXT #NEXTevolution,” Iridium elaborated with photos showing the recent processing in progress.

The Iridium mission is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches – totaling 70 satellites.

“Iridium is replacing its existing constellation by sending 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket over 7 different launches,” says Iridium.

“There were many challenges on the program, from orbit determination knowledge design, to encryption design, to integration and verification test planning, to planning for on orbit acceptance activities, but the team made it all come together and the satellites are ready for deployment to enhance the future of mobile satellite communications — I could not be more proud,” Joel Rademacher, Ph.D, Director, Systems Engineering for Iridium Next, said in a statement.

The goal of this privately contracted mission is to deliver the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit to inaugurate what will be a new constellation of satellites dedicated to mobile voice and data communications.

Iridium eventually plans to launch a constellation of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit.

“At least 70 of which will be launched by SpaceX,” per Iridium’s contract with SpaceX.

Iridium’s SpaceX Falcon9 rocket in processing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, getting ready for launch in early Jan. 2017. Credit: Iridium

Besides the launch, SpaceX plans to continue its secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage via a propulsive soft landing – as done several times previously and witnessed by this author.

The goal is to eventually recycle and reuse the first stage – and thereby dramatically slash launch costs per Musk’s vision.

This Falcon 9 has been outfitted with four landing lags and grid fins for a controlled landing on a tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Desch says that all seven of his Falcon’s will be new – not resued.

“All our seven F9s are new,” Desch tweeted.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX maintains active launch pads on both the US East and West coasts.

On the Florida Space Coast, SpaceX plans to initially resume launches at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from pad 39A, the former shuttle pad that SpaceX has leased from NASA.

Commercial SpaceX launches at KSC could start from pad 39A sometime in early 2017 – after modifications for the Falcon 9 are completed.

Meanwhile pad 40, which was heavily damaged during the Sept. 1 explosion, is undergoing extensive repairs and refurbishments to bring it back online.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It is not known when pad 40 will be fit to resume Falcon 9 launches.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Postpones Falcon 9 Rocket Launch Resumption to January 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 Stage 1 arriving in California for Iridium NEXT launch - with a Rainbow! Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
SpaceX Falcon 9 Stage 1 arriving in California for Iridium NEXT launch – with a Rainbow! Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

SpaceX is postponing the resumption of launches for their Falcon 9 rocket into early January 2017 as they continue to deal with the fallout from the catastrophic launch pad explosion in Florida that destroyed a Falcon 9 during preflight test operations three months ago.

The new space aerospace company led by billionaire CEO Elon Musk had planned to restart launches as early as next week on Dec 16, for the boosters ‘Return to Flight’ Falcon 9 mission from California with a payload comprising Iridium Corporation’s next-generation communications satellites.

The Iridium mission is the first of seven planned launches.

“Iridium is replacing its existing constellation by sending 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket over 7 different launches,” noted Iridium in a statement.

However, the launch date was pending until approval by the FAA – which will not yet be forthcoming in time to meet the Dec. 16 target date.

The FAA can’t approve a launch until they have a report to review from SpaceX. And that final accident investigation report has not yet been written by SpaceX or submitted to the FAA.

In a new update, SpaceX announced that they “are finalizing the investigation into our September 1 anomaly” and need to “complete extended testing” – thus inevitably delaying the hoped for blastoff into early January 2017.

One should not be surprised if there are further delays into the ‘Return to Flight’ since the determination of root cause, testing fixes and finally implementing effective corrective action will take time. This is rocket science and it’s not easy.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX is still investigating why the rocket unexpectedly erupted into a humongous fireball at pad 40 on Sept. 1, that completely consumed the rocket and its $200 million Amos-6 Israeli commercial payload during a routine fueling and planned static fire engine test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The explosive anomaly resulted from a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank and subsequent ignition of the highly flammable oxygen propellant.

“We are finalizing the investigation into our September 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight, now in early January with the launch of Iridium-1,” SpaceX announced in a statement.

Iridium Communications had recently announced that the first launch of a slew of its next-generation global satellite constellation, dubbed Iridium NEXT, would launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on December 16, 2016 at 12:36 p.m. PST from SpaceX’s west coast launch pad on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

But since only 3 months had elapsed since the accident – the second in 15 months – more time was clearly needed to be certain the rocket was truly flight worthy.

“This allows for additional time to close-out vehicle preparations and complete extended testing to help ensure the highest possible level of mission assurance prior to launch,” SpaceX elaborated.

Iridium also issued a statement supporting the launch delay and expressing continued confidence in SpaceX.

“Iridium supports SpaceX’s announcement today to extend the first Iridium NEXT launch date into early January, in order to help ensure a successful mission. We remain as confident as ever in their ability to safely deliver our satellites into low Earth orbit.”

Iridium NEXT satellites being processed for launch by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
Iridium NEXT satellites being processed for launch by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX ‘Return to Flight’ Set For Dec. 16 with Next Gen Iridium Satellites – 3 Months After Pad Explosion

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Only three months after the catastrophic launch pad explosion of their commercial Falcon 9 rocket in Florida, SpaceX has set Dec. 16 as the date for the boosters ‘Return to Flight’ launch from California with the first batch of Iridium’s next-generation communications satellites.

Iridium Communications announced on Thursday that the first launch of a slew of its next-generation global satellite constellation, dubbed Iridium NEXT, will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on December 16, 2016 at 12:36 p.m. PST from SpaceX’s west coast launch pad on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Iridium NEXT satellites being processed for launch by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
Iridium NEXT satellites being processed for launch by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

However the launch is dependent on achieving FAA approval for the Falcon 9 launch.

All SpaceX Falcon 9 launches immediately ground to a halt following the colossal eruption of a fireball from the Falcon 9 at the launch pad that suddenly destroyed the rocket and completely consumed its $200 million Israeli Amos-6 commercial payload on Sept. 1 during a routine fueling and planned static fire engine test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The explosive anomaly resulted from a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank and subsequent ignition of the highly flammable oxygen propellant.

“This launch is contingent upon the FAA’s approval of SpaceX’s return to flight following the anomaly that occurred on September 1, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida,” Iridium said in a statement.

SpaceX quickly started an investigation to determine the cause of the anomaly that destroyed the rocket and its payload and significantly damaged the infrastructure at launch pad 40.

“The investigation has been conducted with FAA oversight. Iridium expects to be SpaceX’s first return to flight launch customer.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

The goal of the privately contracted mission is to deliver the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit to inaugurate what will be a new constellation of satellites dedicated to mobile voice and data communications.

Iridium eventually plans to launch a constellation of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit.

“At least 70 of which will be launched by SpaceX,” per Iridium’s contract with SpaceX.

“We’re excited to launch the first batch of our new satellite constellation. We have remained confident in SpaceX’s ability as a launch partner throughout the Falcon 9 investigation,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer at Iridium, in a statement.

“We are grateful for their transparency and hard work to plan for their return to flight. We are looking forward to the inaugural launch of Iridium NEXT, and what will begin a new chapter in our history.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 Stage 1 arriving in California for Iridium NEXT launch - with a Rainbow! Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
SpaceX Falcon 9 Stage 1 arriving in California for Iridium NEXT launch – with a Rainbow! Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

Altogether seven Falcon 9 launches will be required to deploy the constellation of 70 Iridium NEXT satellites by early 2018, if all goes well.

The initial batch of Iridium NEXT satellites for this launch began arriving at SpaceX’s Vandenberg AFB satellite processing facility in early August 2016. They were built by Orbital ATK.

Following up on earlier statements by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk had said in a televised CNBC interview on Nov. 4 that the firm was aiming to resume launches of the booster in mid-December.

“We are looking forward to return to flight with the first Iridium NEXT launch,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX.

“Iridium has been a great partner for nearly a decade, and we appreciate their working with us to put their first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.”

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016  after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Musk said the Sept 1 explosion at pad 40 was related to some type of interaction between the liquid helium bottles , carbon composites and solidification of the liquid oxygen propellant in the SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage.

“It basically involves a combination of liquid helium, advanced carbon fiber composites, and solid oxygen, Musk elaborated to CNBC.

“Oxygen so cold that it enters the solid phase.”

The explosion took place without warning as liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants were being loaded into the second stage of the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 during a routine fueling test and engine firing test at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex-40 launch facility at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT on Sept. 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

But the rocket blew up during the fueling operations and the SpaceX launch team never even got to the point of igniting the first stage engines for the static fire test.

Pad 40 is out of action until extensive repairs and testing are completed.

The Sept. 1 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time and called into question the rockets overall reliability.

The first Falcon 9 failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion about two and a half minutes after liftoff, during the Dragon CRS-9 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author.

SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage 1 arriving at Vandenberg AFB in California in early November 2016 for Iridium NEXT launch. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage arriving at Vandenberg AFB in California in early November 2016 for Iridium NEXT launch. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

SpaceX maintains launch pads on both the US East and West coasts.

On the Florida Space Coast, SpaceX plans to initially resume launches at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from pad 39A, the former shuttle pad that SpaceX has leased from NASA, while pad 40 is repaired and refurbished.

KSC launches could start as soon as early January 2017 with the EchoStar 23 communications satellite.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about ULA Delta 4 launch on Dec 7, GOES-R weather satellite, Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, ULA, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX AMOS-6 & CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 5-7: “ULA Delta 4 Dec 7 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions to the ISS, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Iridium NEXT Set to Begin Deployment This Year

The skies, they are uh changin’…  I remember reading in Astronomy magazine waaaay back in the late 1990s (in those days, news was disseminated in actual paper magazines) about a hot new constellation of satellites that were said to flare in a predictable fashion.

This is the Iridium satellite constellation, a series of 66 active satellites and six in-orbit and nine ground spares. The ‘Iridium’ name comes from the element with atomic number 77 of the same name (the original project envisioned 77 satellites in low Earth orbit), and the satellites serve users with global satellite phone coverage.

A 'double Iridium flare' capture! Image credit: Mary Spicer
A ‘double Iridium flare’ capture! Image credit: Mary Spicer

Over the years, Iridium satellite flares have become a common sight in the night sky… but that may change soon.

The next generation of Iridium communications satellites begins launching later this year through 2017.

Known as Iridium-NEXT, the first launch is set for October of this year from Dombarovsky air base Russia atop a converted ICBM Dnepr rocket. The Dnepr can carry two satellites on each launch, and SpaceX has also recently agreed to deploy 70 satellites over the span of seven missions launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California later this year.

Both the initial Iridium satellites and Iridium NEXT are operated by Iridium Communications Incorporated. The original satellites were built by Motorola and Lockheed Martin, and the prime contract for Iridium NEXT construction went to Thales Alenia Space.

There are also several fascinating issues surrounding the history of the Iridium constellation, both past and present.

Originally fielded by Motorola in the 1990s, satellite phones were to be “the next big thing” until mobile phones took over. Conceived in the late 1980s, the concept of satellite phones was practically obsolete before the first Iridium satellite got off the ground. The high cost of satellite phone services assured they could never manage to compete with the explosive growth of the mobile phone industry, and satellite phones at best only found niche applications for remote operations worldwide.  Iridium Communications declared bankruptcy in 1999, and the $6 billion US dollar project was bought by a group of private investors for only $35 million dollars.

Airmen using an Iridium satellite phone in Antarctica. Image credit: Robert Tingle/USAF
Airmen using an Iridium satellite phone in Antarctica. Image credit: Robert Tingle/USAF

The original Iridium constellation employed a unique system of Inter-Satellite Links, enabling them to directly route signals from satellite to satellite. Iridium NEXT will use an innovative L-band phased array antenna, allowing for larger bandwidth and faster data transmission. The Iridium NEXT constellation is planned to eventually contain 81 satellites including spares, and the system will be much more robust and reliable.

The Iridium NEXT constellation will also face some stiff competition, as Google, SpaceX and OneWeb are also looking to get into the business of satellite Internet and communications. This will also place hundreds of new satellites—not to mention the growing flock of CubeSats—into an already very crowded region of low Earth orbit. The Iridium 33 satellite collision with the defunct Kosmos 2251 satellite in 2009 highlighted the ongoing issues surrounding space debris.

The company applied for a plan to deorbit the original Iridium constellation starting in 2017 as soon as the new Iridium NEXT satellites are in place.

Now, I know what the question of the hour is, as it’s one that we get frequently from other satellite spotters and lovers of artificial things that flash in the sky:

Will the Iridium NEXT satellites flare in manner similar to their predecessors?

Unfortunately, the prospects aren’t good. Missing on Iridium NEXT are the three large refrigerator-sized antennae which are the source of those brilliant -8 magnitude flares. And sure, while these flares weren’t Iridium’s sole mission purpose, they were sure fun to watch!

An 'Iridium classic...' note the trio of reflective antenae on the lower bus. Image credit: Iridium Communications inc.
An ‘Iridium classic…’ note the trio of reflective antennae on the lower bus. Image credit: Iridium Communications inc.

David Cubbage, Associate Director of NEXT Spacecraft Development and Satellite Production recently told Universe Today:

“It was very exciting when we first discovered that the Iridium Block 1 satellite vehicles (SVs) reflected the sunlight into a concentrated “flare” that could be viewed in the night sky.  The unique design of the Block 1 SV, with three highly reflective Main Mission Antennas (MMA) deployed at an angle from the SV body, is what caused that to happen.  For the Iridium NEXT constellation, the SVs will be built under a different design with a single MMA that faces the Earth — a design that requires fewer parts that do not need to be as reflective.  As a result, it will not likely produce the spectacular flares of the Block 1 design.”

But don’t despair. Though the two decade ‘Age of the Iridium flare’ may be coming to an end, lots of other satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope, MetOp-A and B,  and the COSMO-SkyMed series of satellites can ‘slow flare’ on occasion. We recently saw something similar during a pass of the U.S. Air Force’s super-secret ATV-4 space plane currently carrying out its OTV-4 mission, suggesting that a large reflective solar panel may be currently deployed.

An Iridium flare through the constellations Orion and Lepus. Image credit: David Dickinson
An Iridium flare passing through the constellations Orion and Lepus. Image credit: David Dickinson

And though the path to commercial viability for satellite internet and communications is a tough one, we hope it does indeed take off soon… we personally love the idea of being able to stay connected from anywhere worldwide.

Be sure to catch those Iridium flares while you can… we’ll soon be telling future generations of amateur astronomers that we remember “back when…”

-Check out the chances for the next Iridium flare coming to a sky near you on Heavens-Above.