SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket puts 10 Iridium satellites in orbit, then lands in rough seas

A webcam shows the deployment of an Iridium NEXT telecommunications satellites from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 upper stage, with Earth in the background. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent 10 more Iridium NEXT telecommunications satellites into space today from a fogged-in California pad, then executed a rough-and-tumble booster landing.

Today’s mission also featured an attempt to catch the rocket’s falling nose cone, using a boat equipped with a giant net. SpaceX said the effort was unsuccessful, in part because of the windy conditions at sea.

Liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base occurred on time at 4:39 a.m. PT, amid fog so thick that the two-stage rocket’s ascent could only be seen as a bright spot in the murk.

Minutes after launch, the Falcon 9’s second stage separated to continue the push to orbit, while the first stage maneuvered itself through a supersonic descent back down to a ship stationed hundreds of miles out in the Pacific Ocean.

Launch commentator John Insprucker downplayed the chances for a successful landing on the ship, named “Just Read the Instructions,” because of challenging weather conditions.

“They’re the worst that we’ve ever had for trying to get a first stage back on a drone ship,” he said on the webcast.

Despite winds and rough seas, the booster set itself down successfully.

A webcam view shows the first-stage booster of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket standing on the deck of a drone ship named “Just Read the Instructions.” (SpaceX via YouTube)

Another ship, called Mr. Steven, was tasked with trying to snag the parafoil-equipped halves of the second stage’s nose cone, also known as the fairing. Such attempts have been made in the past without success, but for this mission, the ship was given a dramatically bigger net.

Today’s effort came oh so close, but not close enough.

“We had bad weather out in the Pacific with that wind shear,” Insprucker said. “They did see the payload fairing coming down, but they were not able to catch it in the net. We will continue to attempt that in the future as we learn to how to bring fairings back and then reuse them.”

Reusing nose cones could save millions of dollars off the $50 million list price of a Falcon 9 launch.

An hour after launch, the focus shifted to the deployment of the 10 Iridium satellites in low Earth orbit.

One by one, the satellites took their place in Iridium’s next-generation constellation, designed to provide enhanced broadband services across the globe. This was the seventh of eight Iridium launches contracted out to SpaceX.

Today’s deployment, like the six previous ones, was fully successful. “Ten for 10, a clean sweep again,” Insprucker declared.

SpaceX’s California launch was just one of today’s comings and goings for the space industry. About 15 minutes before the Falcon 9 lifted off, the European Space Agency sent a heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket into orbit to add four satellites to the Galileo navigation constellation, Europe’s analog to America’s Global Positioning System.

Meanwhile, a different SpaceX Falcon 9 first-stage booster was returned to the Port Canaveral on the Florida coast, three days after its launch from Cape Canaveral to put the heavy-duty Telstar-19 Vantage telecom satellite in orbit.

That booster made its own successful landing on SpaceX’s Atlantic drone ship, christened “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Yet another Falcon 9 rocket is due to be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Aug. 4 to put the Merah Putih telecommunications satellite in orbit for Telkom Indonesia.