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

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

Russian Crowdfunded Satellite May Soon Become Brightest “Star” in the Sky

Artist’s view of the proposed Mayak (Beacon) satellite fully unfurled and orbiting Earth. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

We may soon look up and see a satellite brighter than the space station and even Venus gliding across the night sky if a Russian crowdfunding effort succeeds. An enthusiastic team of students from Moscow University of Mechanical Engineering are using Boomstarter, the Russian equivalent of Kickstarter, to raise the money needed to build and launch a pyramid-shaped satellite made of highly reflective material they’re calling Mayak, Russian for “Beacon”.


Young engineers at Moscow University explain the Mayak Project

To date they’ve collected more than $23,000 or 1.7 million rubles. Judging from the video, the team has built the canister that would hold the satellite (folded up inside) and performed a high-altitude test using a balloon. If funding is secured, Beacon is scheduled to launch on a Soyuz-2 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the second quarter of this year.

Illustration of the “Beacon” unfurling from its canister when it reaches orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Illustration of the “Beacon” inflating from its canister after reaching orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once in orbit, Beacon will inflate into a pyramid with a surface area of 172 square feet (16 square meters). Made of reflective metallized film 20 times thinner than a human hair, the satellite is expected to become the brightest man-made object in orbit ever. That title is currently held by the International Space Station which can shine as brightly as magnitude -3 or about three times fainter than Venus. The brightest satellites, the Iridiums, can flare to magnitude -8 (as bright as the crescent moon) but only for a few seconds before fading back to invisibility. They form a “constellation” of  some 66 satellites that provide data and voice communications.

A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective "Beacon" satellite. Credit:
A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective “Beacon” satellite. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

A concurrently-developed mobile app would allow users to know when Beacon would pass over a particular location. The students hope to achieve more than just track a bright, moving light across the sky. According to their website, the goal of the project is the “popularization of astronautics and space research in Russia, as well as improving the attractiveness of science and technology education among young people.” They want to show that almost anyone can build and send a spacecraft into orbit, not just corporations and governments.

Further, the students hope to test aerodynamic braking in the atmosphere and find out more about the density of air at orbital altitudes. Interested donors can give anywhere from 300 rubles (about $5) up 300,000 ($4,000). The more money, the more access you’ll have to the group and news of the satellite’s progress; the top donor will get invited to watch the launch on-site.

Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Liftoff! Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once finished with the Mayak Project, the team wants to built another version that uses that atmosphere for braking its speed and returning it — and future satellites — safely back to Earth without the need for retro-rockets.

I think all these goals are worthy, and I admire the students’ enthusiasm. I only hope that satellite launching doesn’t become so cheap and popular that we end up lighting up the night sky even further. What do you think?

How Do Astronauts Avoid Debris?

So, just how do we keep our space stations, ships and astronauts from being riddled with holes from all of the space junk in orbit around Earth?

We revel in the terror grab bag of all the magical ways to get snuffed in space. Almost as much as we celebrate the giant brass backbones of the people who travel there.

We’ve already talked about all the scary ways that astronauts can die in space. My personal recurring “Hail Mary full of grace, please don’t let me die in space” nightmare is orbital debris.

We’re talking about a vast collection of spent rockets, dead satellites, flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict. It’s not a short list. NASA figures there are 21,000 bits of junk bigger than 10 cm, 500,000 particles between 1 and 10 cm, and more than 100 million smaller than 1 cm. Sound familiar, humans? This is our high tech, sci fi great Pacific garbage patch.

Sure, a tiny rivet or piece of scrap foil doesn’t sound very dangerous, but consider the fact that astronauts are orbiting the Earth at a velocity of about 28,000 km/h. And the Tang packets, uneaten dehydrated ice cream, and astronaut poops are also traveling at 28,000 km/h. Then think about what happens when they collide. Yikes… or yuck.

Here’s the International Space Station’s solar array. See that tiny hole? Embiggen and clarinosticate! That’s a tiny puncture hole made in the array by a piece of orbital crap.

The whole station is pummeled by tiny pieces of space program junk drawer contents. Back when the Space Shuttle was flying, NASA had to constantly replace their windows because of the damage they were experiencing from the orbital equivalent of Dennis the Menace hurling paint chips, fingernail clippings, and frozen scabs.

That’s just little pieces of paint. What can NASA do to keep Sandra Bullock safe from the larger, more dangerous chunks that could tear the station a new entry hatch?

For starters, NASA and the US Department of Defense are constantly tracking as much of the orbital debris that they can. They know the position of every piece of debris larger than a softball. Which I think, as far as careers go, would be grossly underestimated for its coolness and complexity at a cocktail party.

Artist's impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA

“What do you do for a living?”
“Me, oh, I’m part of the program which tracks orbital debris to keep astronauts safe.”
“So…you track our space garbage?”
“Uh, actually, never mind, I’m an accountant.”

Furthermore, they’re tracking everything in low Earth orbit – where the astronauts fly – down to a size of 5 cm. That’s 21,000 discrete objects.

NASA then compares the movements of all these objects and compares it to the position of the Space Station. If there’s any risk of a collision, NASA takes preventative measures and moves the Space Station to avoid the debris.

The ISS has thrusters of its own, but it can also use the assistance of spacecraft which are docked to it at the time, such as a Russian Soyuz capsule.

NASA is ready to make these maneuvers at a moment’s notice if necessary, but often they’ll have a few days notice, and give the astronauts time to prepare. Plus, who doesn’t love a close call?

For example, in some alerts, the astronauts have gotten into their Soyuz escape craft, ready to abandon the Station if there’s a catastrophic impact. And if they have even less warning, the astronauts have to just hunker down in some of the Station’s more sturdy regions and wait out the debris flyby.

The Iridium constellation - a robust satellite network (Iridium)
The Iridium constellation – a robust satellite network (Iridium)

This isn’t speculation and overcautious nannying on NASA’s part. In 2009 an Iridium communications satellite was smashed by a dead Russian Kosmos-2251 military satellite. The collision destroyed both satellites instantly. As icing on this whirling, screaming metallic orbital-terror-cake, it added 2,000 new chunks of debris to the growing collection.

Most material was in a fairly low orbit, and much of it has already been slowed down by the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.

This wasn’t the first time two star-crossed satellites with a love that could-not-be had a shrapnel fountain suicide pact, and I promise it won’t be the last. Each collision adds to the total amount of debris in orbit, and increases the risk of a run-away cascade of orbital collisions.

We should never underestimate the bravery and commitment of astronauts. They strap themselves to massive explosion tubes and weather the metal squalls of earth orbit in tiny steel life-rafts. So, would you be willing to risk all that debris for a chance to fly in orbit? Tell us in the comments below.