SpaceX has resumed flights, launching a new Falcon 9 rocket, Iridium-1 NEXT, from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast.
It is the first mission by SpaceX since one of its vehicles exploded on the launch pad in September 2016.
The return to operations sees SpaceX start to renew what was the original global handheld satellite phone network, run by Iridium.
Lift-off took place at 09:54 local time on January 14.
A few minutes later, the first stage of the rocket landed successfully on a platform in the Pacific Ocean. An hour and 15 minutes after launch, the mission was complete with the Iridium payload safely in orbit.
Image source Flickr
SpaceX must now follow through with a steady but rapid series of further flights.
It has a long queue of customers all waiting for a ride to orbit – including NASA, the nation’s military, and multiple outfits in the commercial sector.
Iridium has six further missions it wants to complete with SpaceX inside the next 18 months.
On this flight were 10 spacecraft for the Iridium satellite voice and data company. The batch represents the first phase in the roll-out of Iridium’s NEXT constellation.
A total of 81 satellites have been ordered from the European manufacturer Thales Alenia Space to completely overhaul the original but now ageing network.
Matt Desch, chief executive officer of Iridium, said: “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.
“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.”
Iridium-1 is famous for being the very first commercial company to provide global, hand-held satphone coverage, and supplying voice connections to anywhere on the planet is still very much part of its business.
Its network has increasingly been used to feed data from remote systems, such as pipelines, ocean buoys, and mining equipment.
Iridium-1 has become a big player in what is termed M2M, or “machine to machine” services. And SpaceX is banking on that market getting ever bigger as more and more systems are linked together.
SpaceX has successfully landed an unmanned Falcon-9 rocket upright, after sending 11 satellites into orbit.
The Falcon-9 craft touched down on December 21, about 10km from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
It is not the first spacecraft to land a booster vertically; that feat was claimed by the much smaller New Shepard rocket in Texas last month.
Nonetheless the Falcon-9 flight, which also went twice as high as New Shepard, is a milestone towards reusing rockets.
SpaceX aims to slash the cost of private space operations with such reusable components – but the company has not launched a rocket since one exploded in June.
On that occasion an unmanned Falcon-9 broke apart in flames minutes after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, with debris tumbling out of the sky into the Atlantic Ocean.
The rocket, which had 18 straight successes prior to the fateful flight, was in the process of sending a cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS).
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to send supplies to the ISS.
On Monday night, local time, the upgraded 23-storey-tall rocket took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the main stage returning about 10 minutes later to a landing site about 6 miles south of the launch pad.
Near the peak of its flight, at an altitude of some 125 miles, it propelled the rocket’s first stage – laden with 11 communications satellites – into space.
The flawless launch on December 21 is a major success for privately-owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, the California-based company set up and run by high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Elon Musk has said the ability to return its rockets to Earth so they can be reused and re-flown would hugely reduce his company’s operational costs in the growing but highly competitive private space launch industry.
SpaceX employees broke out in celebration as they watched a live stream of the 156ft-tall white booster slowly descend to earth in the form of a glowing orange ball.
“Welcome back, baby!” Elon Musk said in a celebratory tweet.
SpaceX commentators described the launch and return – the first time an orbital rocket successfully achieved a controlled landing on Earth – as “incredibly exciting”.
“This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can’t even begin to describe the joy the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing,” the top officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brig Gen Wayne Monteith, said in a statement.
SpaceX is aiming to revolutionize the rocket industry, which up until now has lost millions of dollars in discarded machinery and valuable rocket parts after each launch.
Several earlier attempts to land the Falcon 9’s first stage on an ocean platform have failed.
Unmanned SpaceX rocket Falcon-9 has exploded minutes after lifting off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Rocket debris tumbled out of the sky into the Atlantic Ocean.
Falcon-9, which had 18 straight successes prior to Sunday’s flight, was in the process of sending a cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA says important supplies have been lost but the orbiting lab’s crew is secure.
Even now, the three astronauts have sufficient stores of food, water and equipment to operate until late October, and there should be visits from Russian and Japanese freighters before then.
The problem occurred 139 seconds into the flight, just before the first-stage of the rocket was about to separate from the upper-stage, or top segment of the Falcon-9.
“The vehicle has broken up,” said NASA commentator George Diller, as TV images showed the white rocket falling to pieces.
“We appear to have had a launch vehicle failure,” he added.
“There was an overpressure event in the upper-stage liquid oxygen tank,” tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
“Data suggests counterintuitive cause. That’s all we can say with confidence right now. Will have more to say following a thorough fault tree analysis.”
SpaceX will now lead an investigation, overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NASA, which contracts the California company commercially to resupply the station.
This means there will be no further Falcon-9 launches in the immediate future.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said: “Once we identify the issues we will submit that documentation to the FAA and it will be considered prior to the next flight.”
“I don’t have a timeline for that right now. It certainly isn’t going to be a year – (more likely) a month or so.”
NASA had loaded SpaceX’s Dragon freighter on the top of the Falcon with just over two tonnes of supplies.
These included a new docking mechanism that will be needed when future astronaut vehicles – one of them based on the robotic Dragon itself – come into service later this decade.
The agency has a second mechanism that it will be sending up shortly, but it will now also have to build a third to replace the one lost in the Atlantic.
NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, said:“I think this points out the challenges and difficulties we face in spaceflight.
“We are operating systems at the edge of their ability. This is a very demanding environment that requires tremendous precision and tremendous amounts of engineering skill – for hardware to perform exactly as it should.”
SpaceX has postponed an experiment to bring part of its Falcon 9 rocket down to a soft landing on a floating sea platform.
The space company has now rescheduled the Cape Canaveral demonstration for January 9.
Once the first stage of the rocket launches, and has finished its work, it will head back to Earth to try to touch down on a sea barge in the Atlantic.
If this kind of capability can be proven, it promises dramatically lower launch costs in the future.
All segments of a rocket are usually discarded after use and are destroyed as they fall back down.
SpaceX, however, has been practicing the controlled return of the first stage of its Falcon 9 vehicle.
The problem responsible for today’s scrub decision related to a technical issue detected in the steering mechanism of the rocket’s upper stage.
The next chance to send up the vehicle will be on January 9 at 05:09AM local Florida time.
SpaceX itself has been playing down expectations, rating the chances of success at no more than 50-50.
“I’m pretty sure this will be very exciting, but, as I said, it’s an experiment,” cautioned Hans Koenigsmann, vice president for mission assurance at SpaceX.
“There’s a certain likelihood that this will not work out all right, that something will go wrong. It’s the first time we have tried this – nobody has ever tried it as far as we know.”
The primary purpose of the flight is to send the Dragon cargo ship on a path to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).
It will be the first American re-supply mission to the orbiting platform since October’s spectacular explosion of a freighter system operated by competitor Orbital Sciences Corporation.
However, it is the outcome of the SpaceX experiment that is likely to make the headlines.
SpaceX believes it can return, refurbish and re-use key elements of its rockets.
To this end, it has been testing first-stage boosters that relight their engines to try to slow their fall through the atmosphere, attaching fins to help guide them downwards, and legs to make a stable touchdown.
So far, there have only been mock landings, in which the stage is brought to a hovering position at the surface of the ocean, where, without a solid platform to set down, every booster has subsequently been lost in the water.
The experiment at the end of this week will be different in that SpaceX has sent a floating barge to the targeted return site some 200 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.
SpaceX has successfully launched an updated version of its Falcon 9 rocket from California.
Falcon 9v1.1, carrying the Canadian Cassiope research satellite, lifted clear of the Vandenberg Air Force Base at 09:00 local time.
Preliminary data indicated the desired orbit was achieved nine minutes later.
SpaceX says the updated rocket incorporates a number of modifications to boost performance and simplify operations.
Assuming no anomalies are later identified, this first outing should open the way for the new model to begin carrying satellites for the commercial sector.
In addition to the business it already has with NASA to resupply the space station, the California company now has a long backlog of private sector customers waiting for a Falcon to launch their spacecraft.
SpaceX has successfully launched an updated version of its Falcon 9 rocket from California
These include the big telecommunications platforms that relay the world’s TV and phone traffic.
It is a market that has become dominated in recent years by the European Ariane 5 vehicle. SpaceX aims to take a large slice of its work, and is offering very competitive prices.
The 9v1.1 features more powerful Merlin engines and stretched tanks for additional propellant.
Sunday’s launch was also the first time the rocket had flown with a payload fairing.
This 43ft-tall clamshell covering is necessary to protect satellites from the aerodynamic forces encountered during an ascent.
Sunday’s outing was the first SpaceX mission to use Vandenberg. Until now, all Falcon launches have gone out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The West Coast facility allows the Falcon to undertake a greater range of missions. In particular, it enables the rocket to fly south out over the ocean, away from land, to reach the polar orbits favored by Earth observation satellites.
There is sure to be a lot of interest, also, in the outcome of an experiment that SpaceX ran on Sunday with the Falcon’s first stage.
Normally, the initial segment of a rocket falls back to Earth after burning out and is destroyed. But the company is endeavoring to develop a system that would allow it to recover and recycle these stages, further reducing the cost of launching a Falcon vehicle.
During Sunday’s mission, some of the first stage engines were commanded to reignite, to see if they could bring the rocket segment down under control. Ultimately, the idea is for Falcon first stages to have legs to permit them to make soft landings.
SpaceX has successfully launched Dragon mission to re-supply the space station, the first cargo delivery to the orbiting outpost by a private company.
The firm’s Falcon rocket, topped by an unmanned Dragon freight capsule, lifted clear of its Florida pad at 03:44 EDT.
The initial climb to an altitude some 340 km above the Earth lasted a little under 10 minutes.
Within moments of being ejected, Dragon opened its solar panels.
SpaceX has successfully launched Dragon mission to re-supply the space station, the first cargo delivery to the orbiting outpost by a private company
It will take a couple of days to reach the station. The plan currently is for the vessel to demonstrate its guidance, control and communications systems on Thursday, at a distance of 2.5 km from the International Space Station (ISS).
If those practice proximity manoeuvres go well, Dragon will be allowed to drive to within 10 m of the station on Friday. Astronauts inside the platform will then grab the ship with a robotic arm and berth it to the 400 km-high structure.
They will empty Dragon of its 500 kg of food, water and equipment, before releasing it for a return to Earth at the end of the month.
The mission has major significance because it marks a big change in the way the US wants to conduct its space operations.
NASA is attempting to offload routine human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit to commercial industry in a way similar to how some large organizations contract out their IT or payroll.
The carriage of freight will be the first service to be bought in from external suppliers; the transport of astronauts to and from the station will be the second, later this decade.
The US agency hopes these changes will save it money that can then be invested in exploration missions far beyond Earth, at destinations such as asteroids and Mars.
SpaceX has many new systems it has to demonstrate in the coming days, and has tried to lower expectations ahead of the mission.
NASA has set the California company a series of development milestones. Only when those have been met fully will a $1.6 billion ISS re-supply contract kick in.
The agency is also looking to engage a second cargo partner. Orbital Sciences Corporation of Virginia is slightly behind SpaceX in its development schedule, although it started work on its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule system later. Orbital expects to fly a first mission to the vicinity of the ISS later this year or early in 2013.
The launch of the American SpaceX’s Dragon re-supply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed by at least three days.
The company was forced to abort the flight just as its Falcon rocket was about to leave the pad at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Early data indicated unusual pressure readings in one of the nine engine combustion chambers under the vehicle.
The company says it hopes to try again on Tuesday or Wednesday.
“We had a nominal countdown, right until about T-minus point-five-seconds,” explained SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell.
“The engine controller noted high chamber pressure in engine five; software did what it was supposed to do – aborted engine five, and then we went through the remaining engine shut-down,” she told reporters.
“We need to lift off with all nine [engines], which is why we aborted. You can lose up to two engines and still make your mission, just not at lift-off.”
The launch of the American SpaceX's Dragon re-supply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed by at least three days
The next earliest launch opportunity is 03:44 EDT on Tuesday.
SpaceX is attempting to become the first private company to send a cargo craft to the ISS; and its Dragon ship, which sits atop the Falcon rocket, has been loaded with half a ton of food and spares for the purpose.
Such unmanned freighter missions have traditionally been performed by government-owned vehicles. But by buying in this service, NASA aims to save money that can then be spent on exploration missions far beyond Earth, to asteroids and Mars.
Both SpaceX and another private firm, Orbital Sciences Corp, have been given billion-dollar contracts by NASA to keep the space station stocked with supplies. Orbital expects to make its first visit to the international outpost with its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule system later this year.
SpaceX’s mission – when it does eventually get under way – will be the final demonstration of its freight service. If all the mission goals are met to NASA’s satisfaction, the company’s $1.6 billion re-supply contract with the agency will kick in.
SpaceX wants eventually also to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.
To that end, Dragon has been designed from the outset to carry people; and under another NASA programme, the company is working to develop the onboard life-support and safety systems that would make manned flights feasible.
Following the retirement of the shuttles last year, America has had no means of launching its own astronauts into space – rides must be bought for them on Russian Soyuz rockets at more than $60 million per seat. SpaceX says Dragon could be ready to carry people in 2015 at a seat price of $20 million.
“In order for NASA to be able to afford any programme of exploration in the future given the fiscal realities of the government, it has to transition away from high-cost services that are procured by and for the government into shared-use services that are competitively sourced,” observed Jeff Greason, the president of XCOR Aerospace and a leading proponent of commercial space activity.
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