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SpaceX Returns to Flight with 10-Satellite Launch, Rocket Landing

SpaceX launched 10 satellites to orbit today.

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SpaceX launched 10 satellites to orbit today (Jan. 14) in a rousing return-to-flight mission that also included a rocket landing on a ship at sea.

SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from a launch pad just a few hundred meters from the scenic California coastline here today at 12:54 p.m. EST (1754 GMT; 9:54 a.m. local California time), carrying 10 communications satellites to low-Earth orbit for the Virginia-based company Iridium. After a week of heavy rain and strong winds, only a few clouds obscured the view of the rocket as it climbed skyward.

Deployment of the satellites began 59 minutes after liftoff and took about 15 minutes, SpaceX representatives said. [Photos: SpaceX’s Return-to-Flight Rocket Launch and Landing Success]

This success was critically important to SpaceX, which is bouncing back from a Sept. 1 launch pad explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 and its payload, the $200 million Amos-6 communications satellite. The company had been grounded until today, as it investigated the accident and worked to ensure that something similar doesn’t happen again.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off for the first time in five months to put 10 advanced Iridium Next telecommunication satelites in orbit – and demonstrate that the company’s innovative launch-and-landing system was back in stride.

Cheers went up from a crowd of hundreds of SpaceX employees at the company’s headquarters as they watched the rocket ascend from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:54 a.m. PT. The cheers rose again minutes later when the Falcon 9’s first stage landed on a drone ship in the Pacific for the first time.

Today’s liftoff came after a spectacular launch pad explosion on Sept. 1 that destroyed a different Falcon 9 and its $200 million Amos-6 satellite payload.

That blow-up forced a months-long suspension, during which SpaceX determined that the failure was caused by problems with a helium pressure vessel inside the rocket’s second-stage liquid oxygen tank. To head off those problems, SpaceX changed its fueling procedures and will eventually redesign the vessels.

In addition to marking SpaceX’s return to flight, this mission marked the first deployment of Iridium’s next-generation satellites. The satellites were deployed, one by one, into a pole-to-pole orbit to provide mobile and data communication services.

SpaceX is due to put the 70-satellite constellation into place with seven launches over the course of the next year. Iridium Next is designed to deliver faster data transfer speeds and higher throughputs than Iridium’s existing network, representing one of the largest “tech upgrades” in history.

During the eight minutes following launch, the rocket’s second stage and its payload separated from the first-stage booster. While the second stage powered onward to orbit, the first stage went through a series of maneuvers to slow itself down from supersonic speeds and guide itself to an oceangoing drone ship.

The autonomous spaceport drone ship, christened “Just Read the Instructions” in homage to science-fiction author Iain M. Banks, was pre-positioned in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles offshore.

SpaceX has successfully landed a Falcon 9 booster six times, including two touchdowns at its “Landing Zone 1” in Florida and four times on a drone ship in the Atlantic. This was the first Pacific touchdown.

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