SpaceX returned in emphatic fashion over the weekend, as it successfully launched and landed a rocket for the first time in five months.
The Falcon 9 rocket, carrying 10 satellites for communications company Iridium, lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 12.54pm EST (5.54pm GMT) on Saturday. A few minutes after launch, the first stage of the rocket flew back to the ground, and performed a powered landing on a floating barge called Just Read The Instructions.
This was SpaceX’s first attempt at a launch since September, when one of its rockets experienced a catastrophic launch pad failure and exploded. The turnaround has been remarkably quick following an investigation into the failure, and SpaceX can now begin working through its backlog of orders.
SpaceX has recovered from failure before, most notably in 2015, when one of its rockets exploded in June on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) with a Dragon cargo spacecraft on board. That time, SpaceX did not fly again till December – so the turnaround on this occasion has been even quicker.
And landing one of its rockets again will be a massive boon to SpaceX, who are hoping to massively reduce the cost of launching by reusing rockets. They are yet to reuse one of their landed rockets yet – of which there are now seven – having originally planned to do so in 2016. That launch, for Luxembourg satellite manufacturer SES, is now likely to take place this year.
As for this weekend’s launch, this was the first of several that have been ordered by Iridium to replace its aging fleet of communications satellites. The company is famous for being the first to provide global satellite phone coverage, but now its satellites are used for a much wider range of purposes.
Above is a replay of the launch
They are also famous for being the source of Iridium “flares”, flashes in the sky as sunlight reflects off the satellites. But Iridium’s CEO, Matt Desch, told BBC News that those would cease to occur once the old satellites had all been taken out of service in the next few years. If you’ve never seen an Iridium flare, we’d highly recommend doing so. Details on how to see them can be found here.
This was SpaceX’s first successful flight since the launch of the JCSAT-16 satellite on August 14, 2016. Their next launch is scheduled for February 8, when they will launch a Dragon cargo mission to the ISS. This year, the company is also planning to perform an unmanned test of its crewed Dragon 2 spacecraft, and hopefully launch the Falcon Heavy – which will be the world’s most powerful rocket in operation.