Exactly three months into 2018 and SpaceX has already completed its sixth mission of the year, successfully launching 10 Iridium NEXT Satellites into orbit today (March 30).
A previously used SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 10:13 a.m. EDT (1413 GMT) on its fifth Iridium mission, dubbed Iridium-5.
Ironically, the recycled booster‘s previous deployment was also for an Iridium launch – the Iridium-3 mission, to be precise – after which the booster was recovered for re-deployment.
However, this wasn’t the first time that an Iridium mission was launched using a recovered booster from an earlier Iridium mission.
Iridium-4 was launched last December using the same Falcon 9 booster recovered from the Iridium 2 mission in June 2017.
So, effectually, SpaceX has thus far launched five Iridium missions using just three boosters, as SpaceX materials engineer Michael Hammersley was quick to point out during live commentary of today’s launch.
“Today, this is our fifth launch for the Iridium constellation, using only three rockets,” he said.
Well, you can call it a record of sorts.
However, no attempt was made to recover the booster today, but no surprises there, as SpaceX had announced prior to the launch that it would not be going for a second retrieval of the first stage.
SpaceX is under a $536 million contract with Iridium Communications Inc. to launch 75 Iridium Next satellites over eight Falcon 9 mission.
With five Iridium missions already in the SpaceX bag, and 50 of the Virginia-based company’s satellites circling their intended orbits, SpaceX is left with 25 more satellites to launch over the three remaining missions – the Iridium-6, Iridium-7 and Iridium-8 missions, which should be achieved by mid 2018, providing SpaceX is able to maintain the blistering pace it has set thus far.
Some nine minutes into today’s launch, the company stopped the live video feed from the rocket’s second stage – a clear deviation from a typical SpaceX launch.
“Due to some restrictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric [Administration], NOAA for short, SpaceX will be intentionally ending live video coverage from the second stage just prior to engine shutdown,” Hammersley said.
“We’re working with NOAA to address these restrictions in order to hopefully be able to bring you live views from orbit in the future,” added the commentator, without elaborating on the details of the so-called NOAA restrictions.
As part of its endeavor to bring down launch costs, SpaceX has been working hard at perfecting its booster recovery act and has been pretty much successful in launching, recovering and re-launching first stage Falcon 9 boosters.
Well, having gained ample expertise in that area, SpaceX is now looking towards other cost-cutting measures, including the recovery of fairings – a part of the rocket’s nosecone which basically protects the rocket’s payload during its stressful ascent.
The company did manage to recover a Falcon 9 fairing last month after launching Hisdesat’s PAZ and two of its own demo satellites, but the recovery did not exactly go according to plans.
As the clamshell-like fairing fell back to Earth after separation, it deployed a parafoil to slow down its descent so that SpaceX could collect it on its customized fairing recovery boat, called Mr. Steven, fitted with a massive net, held in place by giant metal arms extending out of the boat.
“Going to try to catch the giant fairing (nosecone) of Falcon 9 as it falls back from space at about eight times the speed of sound,” Elon Musk wrote on Instagram at the time. “It has onboard thrusters and a guidance system to bring it through the atmosphere intact, then releases a parafoil and our ship, named Mr. Steven, with basically a giant catcher’s mitt welded on, tries to catch it
However, the fairing missed Mr. Steven’s “giant catcher’s mitt” and landed in the Pacific but no major damage to the nosecone was reported.
“Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water,” Musk wrote on Twitter, adding that in future the company “should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent.”
While today’s mission is another feather in the SpaceX cap, there’s no time for the company to sit back and dwell too much on its successes as another important launch is coming up this week – not that there’s any such thing as an unimportant launch.
Scheduled for an April 2 launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, another previously-used Falcon 9 rocket will lift off with a Dragon cargo ship, also used before, to carry food and other supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) crew.
Again, it won’t be the first instance of a used Dragon spaceship launching atop a used Falcon 9 rocket.
The feat has already been successfully achieved, and as recently as December last year, when SpaceX launched a used Dragon spacecraft, carrying a 4,800-pound resupply payload for the International Space Station (ISS), atop its previously used Falcon 9 rocket, taking the company another step closer, and a big one at that, to its goal of achieving total re-usability.
Not in the history of all its launches had Space X used a previously-flown spacecraft on a previously-flown rocket. It was also the first time, ever, that Elon Musk’s spaceflight company had used a recycled rocket for a NASA mission