Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX poised to return Falcon 9 to flight Saturday

An artist’s depiction of an Iridium-NEXT satellite in orbit. Image credit: Iridium Communications

With launch approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) secured and a hold-down firing of the first stage conducted, SpaceX is continuing to move forward with preparations for the return to flight of its Falcon 9 rocket. Liftoff is currently scheduled for 9:54 a.m. PST (12:54 p.m. EST / 17:54 GMT) Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, at Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The initial launch date was last Monday, but that was delayed due to unfavorable weather and a mid-week range conflict.

Flying into low-Earth orbit (LEO) on what will be SpaceX’s first launch since the launch pad incident last year are 10 Iridium-NEXT satellites. The Thales Alenia-built satellites are the first members of Iridium Communications‘ next-generation satellite constellation, which will provide communications and data services across the globe.

SpaceX engineers work to prepare the 10 Iridium-NEXT satellites for launch atop the Falcon 9. Credit: Iridium Communications

SpaceX engineers work to prepare the 10 Iridium-NEXT satellites for launch atop the Falcon 9. Credit: Iridium Communications

Although the company has found success with its current fleet of spacecraft in LEO by software updates to the spacecraft themselves, allowing data transport capabilities beyond the original voice-only design, and with upgrades to ground support systems, global demand and market expansion has the potential to outstrip the company’s ability to meet consumer needs.

Demand and capacity weren’t the only driving forces at play, either. The current constellation of 66 satellites is aging, with some of the fleet nearing 20 years of service. These were the reasons for designing and building a new generation of satellites: Iridium-NEXT.

The 10 Iridium-NEXT satellites on this launch will be the first of 72 spacecraft – 66 active units, plus 6 on-orbit spares – comprising the company’s upgraded fleet, each capable of providing more than 6.1 million square miles (15.8 million square kilometers) of coverage. When complete, the constellation will be noteworthy for more than just its capabilities.

“This is one of the largest commercial satellite systems being built today,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch.

Indeed, when Iridium signed a deal with SpaceX in 2010 to launch 70 Iridium-NEXT satellites, valued at $492 million, it was the largest single launch deal ever engaged. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was also impressed with Iridium’s goal.

“The Iridium-NEXT constellation is the most ambitious, innovative thing in space communications that is going to happen anytime this decade,” said the NewSpace company leader in a video released by Iridium.

With each of the 10 satellites tipping the scales at roughly 1,874 pounds (850 kilograms), the total payload is well-within the Falcon 9 Full Thrust’s performance envelope. Unfortunately for spectators hoping to see both a launch and a landing at the Vandenberg Air Force Base launch complex, SpaceX will be attempting to land the booster out to sea on one of the company’s automated drone ships – Just Read the Instructions.

SpaceX has been working to convert a disused launch complex at Vandenberg, SLC-4W, to a landing facility. However, they have not received approval to fly the booster back to land.

While SpaceX has been granted FAA approval for Monday’s scheduled launch, Mother Nature looks to have other plans. The forecast for the Lompoc, California, area near Vandenberg Air Force Base calls for rain and clouds for much of the week, including Monday.

SpaceX will broadcast the launch on its YouTube channel.

Video courtesy of Iridium Communications



Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

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