Another 10 next-generation Iridium telecommunications satellites were sent into orbit today aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
This makes the fifth set of 10, out of a total of 75 that SpaceX is putting in orbit for the Iridium NEXT constellation.
The two-stage rocket lifted off at 7:13 a.m. PT into a clear California sky, sparking sightings by the likes of actress Bo Derek. “Congratulations @SpaceX #liftoff from my backyard,” the star of the movie “10” tweeted.
Iridium’s satellites are part of what’s been called one of the biggest tech upgrades in history. The Iridium NEXT constellation is designed to support more space-based communication services, including aviation and maritime tracking as well as voice and data services for commercial and government customers.
The first-stage booster used for today’s launch had previously flown during the Iridium-3 mission, which was similarly launched from Vandenberg last October.
SpaceX took a pass on trying to recover the booster this time around, but it did send out a net-equipped ship called Mr. Steven to try catching the rocket’s upper-stage nose cone, or fairing. This was Mr. Steven’s second try, and like the first try in February, today’s effort was unsuccessful.
If fairings can be recovered, that could save millions of dollars per launch. The maneuver has been compared to using a catcher’s mitt to snag a fly ball — an aptly timed metaphor for the first week of baseball season.
A bit of a stir erupted over today’s webcast coverage, or the paucity thereof.
SpaceX launch commentator Michael Hammersley said the webcast had to be stopped about nine minutes after liftoff, when the second-stage rocket engine completed its first burn, due to restrictions issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The interruption caused consternation among SpaceX’s Twitter fans, and it took some time for an explanation to emerge. According to SpaceX, a recent NOAA ruling classified the cameras on the Falcon 9’s second stage as a remote-sensing space system that had to be licensed. A provisional license was issued to cover today’s launch, but that license prohibited SpaceX from airing views from the second stage once it was in orbit.
SpaceX doesn’t expect this restriction to apply once a full license is obtained, nor will it apply to next week’s scheduled Falcon 9 launch of a Dragon capsule to resupply the space station.
Updates on today’s mission milestones, including the successful deployment of all 10 satellites, were passed along via tweets from SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk. One of Musk’s tweets explained why Mr. Steven missed catching today’s fly ball:
GPS guided parafoil twisted, so fairing impacted water at high speed. Air wake from fairing messing w parafoil steering. Doing helo drop tests in next few weeks to solve.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2018
Oh yeah, forgot to mention it actually landed fine, just not on Mr Steven pic.twitter.com/HckB2OkJ5L
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 2, 2018
Update for 12:25 p.m. PT March 31: NOAA has issued a statement providing more information about the licensing policy:
“The National and Commercial Space Program Act requires a commercial remote sensing license for companies having the capacity to take an image of Earth while on orbit.
“Now that launch companies are putting video cameras on stage 2 rockets that reach an on-orbit status, all such launches will be held to the requirements of the law and its conditions.
“SpaceX applied and received a license from NOAA that included conditions on their capability to live-stream from space. Conditions on Earth imaging to protect national security are common to all licenses for launches with on-orbit capabilities.”