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

SpaceX launched its third batch of 10 Iridium Next communications satellites from California today on a Falcon 9 rocket, then brought down the first-stage booster for a landing on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean.

The launch was the first of two planned this week by SpaceX.

Today’s Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 5:37 a.m. PT, loaded up with satellites that are destined to become part of Iridium’s $3 billion next-generation constellation for broadband data services.

The constellation will eventually comprise 66 operational satellites, plus orbital spares. SpaceX sent up two earlier batches of 10, in January and June, as part of an eight-launch deal with Iridium.

Minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s second stage separated and proceeded to orbit for satellite deployment. Meanwhile, the first stage fired up its engines and began a series of autonomously executed maneuvers, guiding itself back down toward “Just Read the Instructions,” a floating landing pad hundreds of miles off the California coast.

A webcam on the ship caught the booster’s landing:

Over the hour that followed, the Falcon 9 second stage released Iridium’s satellites, one by one.

“We’re 10 for 10, again, a clean sweep of Iridium Next satellite deployments in the desired final orbit,” SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker reported during today’s webcast.

Later, Iridium and SpaceX said the initial checkouts indicated that all 10 satellites were healthy.

The Falcon 9’s liftoff was one of three launches scheduled in the course of 24 hours. It came a little more than eight hours after a Chinese Long March 2D rocket sent a Venezuelan imaging satellite into orbit, and a little less than 12 hours before a Japanese H-2A rocket was due to launch a navigation satellite to boost GPS service in Japan.

SpaceX is gearing up for another Falcon 9 launch on Wednesday, this time from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That mission is aimed at putting the SES-11/EchoStar-105 satellite into geostationary orbit to provide satellite TV and data services.

Today’s launch marked the 14th Falcon 9 liftoff of 2017, keeping SpaceX on track for a record-setting 20 launches in the course of a year.

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