Recovering from the pre-liftoff explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 on the launch pad on 1st September, SpaceX successfully delivered 10 satellites to low-Earth orbit for Iridium on 14th January. Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:54:39 am PST.
Two-and-a-half minutes later, the first stage of the Falcon 9 separated and flew back to land on a “drone ship” in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California. The successful recovery marked the seventh time one of the first stage boosters has landed intact. SpaceX plans to refurbish and re-use the boosters, starting this year.
It was the first launch in what promises to be a busy year for SpaceX, including the inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy. Six more Iridium missions are planned, deploying ten Iridium NEXT satellites at a time. These 70 Iridium NEXT satellites – replacing the initial Iridium satellites with upgraded platforms – are scheduled to be deployed by early 2018. Thales Alenia Space is prime contractor for the assembly and testing of a total of 81 satellites.
Iridium chief executive Matt Desch says the effort to replace and upgrade the entire Iridium constellation is “one of the largest tech refreshes in history”.