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 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