Watch a replay of SpaceX’s fifth launch for Iridium

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher rocketed into orbit Friday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, climbing away from a hillside launch complex just after sunrise with 10 Iridium communications satellites.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket lifted off at 7:13:51 a.m. PDT (10:13:51 a.m. EDT; 1413:51 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg. The Falcon 9 turned toward the south, heading for a 388-mile-high (625-kilometer) polar orbit.

SpaceX confirmed the rocket placed all 10 satellites into orbit around an hour after liftoff, concluding the company’s fifth launch to deploy Iridium’s upgraded global voice, data and broadband network.

Read our Mission Status Center for details on the flight.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Launch preps advance in California for next Falcon 9 flight

SpaceX’s fifth launch of replacement spacecraft for Iridium’s global voice and data communications network is set for March 29 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a flight that Iridium hopes will signal the start of a brisk pace of West Coast missions to complete deployment of the telecom company’s initial 75-satellite constellation this summer.

All 10 satellites assigned to the March 29 launch have been bolted on their SpaceX-built mounting platform for fueling, a procedure that was expected to conclude early this week.

Each of the satellites will weigh 1,896 pounds (860 kilograms) with a full load of hydrazine maneuvering propellant. The combination of the 10 satellites, plus their two-tier dispenser module, make the Iridium missions the heaviest payloads launched by SpaceX to date.

Built in Gilbert, Arizona, by Thales Alenia Space in partnership with Orbital ATK, the latest satellites set to join the Iridium Next fleet were trucked to Vandenberg Air Force Base in pairs, then passed post-shipment checkouts before their stacking on the deployment structure.

The schedule called for technicians to load around 361 pounds (164 kilograms) of hydrazine into each of the Iridium Next satellites over the weekend. The final major steps for the spacecraft will be their encapsulation inside the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload shroud, which protects the satellites during their stay on the launch pad prior to liftoff, and during the first few minutes of flight through the dense lower atmosphere.

Meanwhile, SpaceX ground crews are preparing the Falcon 9 rocket inside the hangar at Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg. The booster launching March 29 first flew in October with the third set of Iridium Next satellites, then landed on SpaceX’s rocket recovery vessel in the Pacific Ocean for refurbishment and reuse.

After completing a hold-down firing at the launch pad, the rocket will return to the hangar for workers to connect the Falcon 9’s payload fairing and the Iridium Next satellites. The Falcon 9 will return to the launch pad, located around 1,000 feet (300 meters) from the hangar, around a day before liftoff.

The Falcon 9 will be hoisted vertical atop the launch mount for final pre-flight checks.

Launch is set for March 29 at 7:19:49 a.m. PDT (10:19:49 a.m. EDT; 1419:49 GMT). The instantaneous launch opportunity is timed to place the 10 payloads into Plane 1 of the Iridium network, which has spacecraft spread in six orbital planes, each with 11 spacecraft.

The 10 new Iridium Next satellites launching next week will join 40 others lofted by four Falcon 9 launches last year. Iridium is deploying an upgraded voice and data relay network to replace an aging satellite fleet that launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Iridium has invested $3 billion in the new-generation system, purchasing 81 satellites from an industrial partnership between Thales Alenia Space and Orbital ATK, eight Falcon 9 launches from SpaceX, and modernized ground terminals to allow the company’s more than 900,000 subscribers to connect to the network. The new satellites allow Iridium to debut voice and Internet capabilities, alongside the network’s previous telephone, messaging and tracking applications.

“Now that we are more than halfway deployed, we can really focus on the impact our next-generation of services will make on the industry,” said Iridium CEO, Matt Desch. “Testing of our exciting new L-band broadband service, Iridium Certus, has been performing well, and with every successful launch, we are closer to bringing our full suite of Iridium Next solutions to life.  With each day, we are meeting key milestones to complete our new network this year, and we can’t wait to see this fifth set arrive in space to keep up the momentum.”

Earlier this month, Iridium said 34 of the Iridium Next satellites launched last year had entered service, meaning more than half of the 66 active satellites in the company’s fleet were new members of the constellation. Three more were due to become operational by the end of March.

Besides their primary mobile communications function, the Iridium Next satellite also host instrumentation to track global air and maritime traffic.

Iridium and SpaceX have three more missions booked after next week’s launch.

Five Iridium Next satellites will share a Falcon 9 launch from California in late April with two joint U.S.-German research satellites to probe Earth’s gravity field. A launch date for that mission has not been confirmed, but filings with the Federal Communications Commission suggest the flight is scheduled for no earlier than April 28.

A launch in late April would occur around 3 p.m. PDT (6 p.m. EDT; 2200 GMT), based on the time that the Earth’s rotation begins the Vandenberg launch base under the mission’s targeted orbital plane.

Two dedicated Falcon 9 flights, each with 10 satellites on-board, will wrap up the Iridium Next launch sequence. Iridium expects the eighth and final launch in the series to occur in July, according to a company spokesperson.

Six of the 81 satellites Iridium purchased have not been booked for a launch, and will remain on Earth as ground spares for now. Iridium has not ruled out launching the final six Iridium Next satellites in the future.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Ground equipment problem slips next Falcon 9 launch to Friday

Trouble with a piece of ground equipment used for testing of the 10 Iridium communications satellites aboard the next Falcon 9 rocket launch has forced a 24-hour delay in the mission to Friday, officials said Tuesday.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base is now scheduled for 7:14 a.m. PDT (10:14 a.m. EDT; 1414 GMT) Friday.

Matt Desch, Iridium’s chief executive, said ground crews preparing the satellites for launch uncovered a problem with ground equipment that initially caused officials to expect the launch to be put off from Thursday until Saturday. A further examination of the issue led officials to declare the mission could blast off Friday.

“It turned out to be an obscure problem with communication harnesses used for testing on the ground, and have now been fixed,” Desch tweeted Tuesday night. “Stubborn problem to find; kudos to combined teams for working round the clock to resolve.”

Earlier Tuesday, Desch posted an update on Twitter saying there was a problem with one of Iridium’s 10 satellites slated to ride the Falcon 9 rocket into orbit.

He tweeted again Tuesday night saying the issue was not with one of the spacecraft, but with ground equipment used for data connectivity during pre-flight testing.

“Positive update to our satellite and launch delay,” Desch tweeted. “Just been apprised there has been a technical resolution; satellites and F9 are in great shape and ready to go! Was ground harness test cable issue – now fixed.”

“Satellites were always fine; just couldn’t talk to one,” he wrote later.

SpaceX and Iridium have a backup launch opportunity Saturday on the Western Range at Vandenberg Air Force, a spaceport on the Central Coast of California northwest of Los Angeles.

The launch will be the fifth for Iridium’s new-generation voice and data relay satellite fleet. Each previous launch has carried 10 satellites to orbit, all using SpaceX Falcon 9 boosters from Vandenberg.

The rocket launching Friday will use a previously-flown first stage that sent 10 Iridium satellites toward orbit in October 2017.

SpaceX’s launch team completed a hold-down firing of the first stage Sunday at Vandenberg. Engineers use the static fire test as a countdown rehearsal for the launch team, which oversees the loading of super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants before igniting the first stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines on the pad.

After the brief firing, ground crews rolled the rocket back to the hangar near the launch facility for attachment of the 10 Iridium Next satellites inside their payload fairing, the structure that shields the spacecraft during the first few minutes of flight through the dense layers of the lower atmosphere.

Iridium has invested $3 billion in the new-generation system, purchasing 81 satellites from an industrial partnership between Thales Alenia Space and Orbital ATK, eight Falcon 9 launches from SpaceX, and modernized ground terminals to allow the company’s more than 900,000 subscribers to connect to the network. The new satellites allow Iridium to debut voice and Internet capabilities, alongside the network’s previous telephone, messaging and tracking applications.

SpaceX has another launch scheduled for Monday, April 2, from Cape Canaveral with a Dragon supply ship heading for the International Space Station. Like the Iridium launch Friday, the resupply mission will lift off aboard a reused Falcon 9 first stage.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.