SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches fifth batch of Iridium NEXT telecom satellites

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (SpaceX via YouTube)

Another 10 next-generation Iridium telecommunications satellites were sent into orbit today aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

This makes the fifth set of 10, out of a total of 75 that SpaceX is putting in orbit for the Iridium NEXT constellation.

The two-stage rocket lifted off at 7:13 a.m. PT into a clear California sky, sparking sightings by the likes of actress Bo Derek. “Congratulations @SpaceX #liftoff from my backyard,” the star of the movie “10” tweeted.

Iridium’s satellites are part of what’s been called one of the biggest tech upgrades in history. The Iridium NEXT constellation is designed to support more space-based communication services, including aviation and maritime tracking as well as voice and data services for commercial and government customers.

The first-stage booster used for today’s launch had previously flown during the Iridium-3 mission, which was similarly launched from Vandenberg last October.

SpaceX took a pass on trying to recover the booster this time around, but it did send out a net-equipped ship called Mr. Steven to try catching the rocket’s upper-stage nose cone, or fairing. If fairings can be recovered, that could save millions of dollars per launch. The maneuver has been compared to using a catcher’s mitt to snag a fly ball — an aptly timed metaphor for the first week of baseball season.

A bit of a stir erupted over today’s webcast coverage, or the paucity thereof.

SpaceX launch commentator Michael Hammersley said the webcast had to be stopped about nine minutes after liftoff, when the second-stage rocket engine completed its first burn, due to restrictions issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The interruption caused consternation among SpaceX’s Twitter fans, and it took some time for an explanation to emerge. It turned out that a recent NOAA ruling classified the cameras on the Falcon 9’s second stage as a remote-sensing space system that had to be licensed. A provisional license was issued to cover today’s launch, but that license prohibited SpaceX from airing views from the second stage once it was in orbit.

SpaceX doesn’t expect this restriction to apply once a full license is obtained, nor will it apply to next week’s Falcon 9 launch of a Dragon capsule to resupply the space station.

Updates on today’s mission milestones, including the successful deployment of all 10 satellites, were passed along via tweets from SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk. (No word yet on Mr. Steven and the fly-ball fairing, though.)