SpaceX launches final batch of Iridium telecom satellites (and lands rocket)

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, carrying 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into space. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent the eighth and final set of next-generation Iridium satellites into orbit today, closing off a yearlong launch campaign.

The rocket rose into partly cloudy skies from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base at 7:31 a.m. PT after a trouble-free countdown. Iridium CEO Matt Desch counted down the final seconds.

Minutes after liftoff, the first-stage booster separated and made an at-sea touchdown on a drone landing ship called “Just Read the Instructions,” hundreds of miles out in the Pacific Ocean.

The booster took on its first launch last September, to send the Telstar 18 Vantage satellite into space. During that mission, it flew itself back to land on SpaceX’s other drone ship, based in Florida. It was refurbished for today’s launch, and now it’s eligible for a third go-round.

SpaceX has been experimenting with techniques to recover the Falcon 9’s nose cone and save millions of dollars in manufacturing costs, but no recovery attempt was made today.

While the Falcon 9 booster returned to Earth, the second stage and its payload pressed on to orbit. About an hour after launch, 10 Iridium NEXT satellites are to be deployed into their orbital positions, one by one.

The $3 billion Iridium NEXT constellation has been called one of the biggest “tech upgrade” in space history. Beginning in January 2018, SpaceX has been putting the satellites into low Earth orbit to replace older spacecraft and clear the way for advanced services.

Iridium Certis, for example, will enable new types of broadband applications such as drone command and control. Iridium’s Aireon system will provide real-time, global aircraft surveillance and tracking.

Over the past year, SpaceX has put 75 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit, including 66 operational spacecraft for the telecommunications constellation and nine on-orbit spares.

Falcon 9 booster landing
A webcam view of SpaceX’s Pacific drone landing ship, “Just Read the Instructions,” shows the Falcon 9 first-stage booster sitting in the bull’s-eye after touchdown. (SpaceX via YouTube)