You never forget your first one. I remember reading about a curious new set of flaring satellites, known as Iridiums. This was waaaaay back in the late 1990s, when we still occasionally read things in something called magazines, which involved pressing ink into plant-flesh to convey information.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the age of the predictable Iridium flare may be coming to an end. Already, scrolling through Heavens-Above reveals very few Iridium flares for the coming months, and these familiar nighttime flashes may become a thing of the past come the end of the decade in 2020.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
“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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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 !
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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