The Falcon 9 rocket is back in business after a successful blastoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday morning, successfully carrying 10 Iridium Next satellites to space while also safely landing the first-stage motor on a droneship.
The Space Exploration Technologies rocket, standing some 229 feet tall, climbed away from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base at 9:54 a.m.
The flight appeared normal as spectators cheered and craned their necks to watch the rocket climb away from the Central Coast.
On board Falcon were 10 Iridium Next satellites, to start building the second generation of a space-based communication system. Iridium boasts a capability to provide mobile, voice and satellite data communications anywhere on the globe.
“Today, Iridium launches a new era in the history of our company and a new era in space as we start to deliver the next generation of satellite communications,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch said.
“We have been working endless hours for the last eight years to get to this day, and to finally be here with 10 Iridium Next satellites successfully launched into low-Earth orbit is a fulfilling moment,” Desch added. “We are incredibly thankful for all of the hard work from our team, as well as our partners, to help us achieve this milestone.”
Separation of the satellites started an hour after liftoff, officials said. However, a ground station problem meant a short delay before officials finally confirmed the crafts’ arrival.
“It’s a clean sweep — 10 for 10,” SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker said.
The mission marks the start of replacing the initial satellites that made up the Iridium constellation two decades ago. The liftoff also signaled the first flight for Falcon since the Sept. 1 on-pad fiery explosion during a test in Florida, and the first flyback mission following a Vandenberg launch.
The droneship, dubbed “Just Read the Instructions,” was in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles away from Vandenberg with video showing the rocket’s first stage landing on the bull’s-eye. Retrieving the lower portion of the rocket for future reuse is vital to keeping costs down for future customers under SpaceX’s business plan.
A successful mission Saturday was crucial for Iridium officials, who plan to send 70 satellites to space aboard seven Falcon 9 rockets over the course of about 14 months from Vandenberg. Plans call for the second set of Iridium Next satellites to head to space in 90 days — or April.
After that, Iridium hopes the missions occur 60 days apart, with launches tentatively planned for June, August and October.
An eager Desch said Friday night that upon a successful mission Saturday, he planned to get officials to pin down a date for the next launch.
“That’s an amazing schedule to replace 66 satellites in space,” said Desch, adding that he hopes to have the network completely replaced by the second quarter of 2018.
Iridium partnered with Thales Alenia Space as the prime contractor for the new Iridium satellites with Orbital ATK hired to assemble, test and integrate the 81 Iridium satellites. An additional 15 satellites will serve as in-orbit and on-the-ground spares. Some 32 satellites have already rolled off the manufacturing line, with work continuing on others, Desch said.
“Every week a new satellite is coming out the door,” he added.
Arrival in space marks a busy time for Iridium ground controllers who will put the satellites through weeks of testing in preparation for moving them into service. Once a vehicle is deemed ready, the Iridium crews will perform a slot swap, or a carefully choreographed and delicate ballet, Desch said, to get the new satellite into place and the old craft moved out the way.
Iridium officials said the slot swap has been likened to trying to the change the tires on the school bus while moving 17,000 mph, all while not dropping a call.
Replacing the Iridium network involves a $3 billion investment for the firm which has its headquarters in McLean,Virginia, Primary Gateway Earth Station in Tempe, Arizona, and a Satellite Network Operations Center in Leesburg,Virginia.
This marked the second year Falcon flew at the first blastoff of the new year from Vandenberg.