A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 satellites for Iridium Communications has blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
About an hour later, the rocket’s second stage released the satellites into low Earth orbit, circling from pole to pole.
“All 10 new satellites have successfully communicated with the Iridium Satellite Network Operations Center and are preparing to begin testing,” the McLean, Virginia, company said in a statement.
The payload was the fifth set of 10 new orbiters launched for the company, which is replacing its entire space-based mobile voice and data network with a satellite constellation dubbed Iridium NEXT.
The $3-billion US project is scheduled for completion this year, with a total of 75 new satellites in orbit. Nine will be on-orbit spares and an additional six will remain on the ground until needed. Iridium said it now has a million active subscribers.
The satellites also carry equipment for Aireon LLC’s air traffic surveillance system designed to provide airlines with frequent updates of aircraft positions, speeds and altitudes, even over remote oceanic and polar areas.
The Falcon 9’s first stage previously flew on an October 2017 Iridium mission and safely landed on a so-called drone ship at sea.
This time there was no attempt to recover the first stage but it was to perform a simulated landing over the ocean, said Michael Hammersley, a SpaceX materials engineer serving as launch spokesman.
Historically, expended rocket segments have been allowed to fall into oceans, but SpaceX founder Elon Musk has made reusability a key goal in order to drive down launch costs.
SpaceX is also experimenting with recovering fairings, the aerodynamic covering that protects satellites during the first few minutes of a launch and then is shed in two halves that fall back to Earth.
The $3-billion US project is scheduled for completion this year, with a total of 75 new satellites in orbit. Iridium, based in McLean, Virginia, provides mobile voice and data communications.
Next launch April 2
SpaceX plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket on April 2 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., to resupply the International Space Station.
On Thursday, the U.S. communications regulator gave formal approval to a plan by Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build a global broadband network using satellites.
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The system proposed by privately held SpaceX will use 4,425 satellites, the FCC said, and will help improve communications in rural or hard-to-serve places where fibre-optic cables and cell towers do not reach.
SpaceX has been granted authority to use frequencies in the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) bands.
Musk, who is also the co-founder and chief executive of electric automaker Tesla Inc., said in 2015 that SpaceX planned to launch a satellite-internet business that would help fund a future city on Mars.
SpaceX wanted to create a “global communications system” that Musk compared to “rebuilding the internet in space.” It would be faster than traditional internet connections, he said.