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Falcon 9 Rocket Delivers Spanish Satellite After Vandenberg AFB Liftoff

Prototype satellites for SpaceX's planned Starlink constellation also on board the rocket

A screenshot of the Falcon 9 rocket’s departure en route to delivering the PAZ spacecraft into orbit Thursday morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
A screenshot of the Falcon 9 rocket’s departure en route to delivering the PAZ spacecraft into orbit Thursday morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (SpaceX / Courtesy photo)

A Falcon 9 rocket’s departure from Vandenberg Air Force Base just before sunrise provided an early morning wake-up call while carting an Earth-Observation satellite into space for Spain.

The two-stage recycled rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies blasted off at 6:17 a.m. from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base. 

Clear skies allowed spectators to view the rocket's ascent into space for an unusually long time.

The rocket released the PAZ satellite 11 minutes after launch, ground controllers confirmed.

PAZ, Spanish for "peace," boasts an advanced radar-imaging satellite for Spain.

Designed for a mission life of more than five years, PAZ will orbit Earth 15 times per day, collecting 100 images covering an area of over 186,411 square miles from an altitude of 319 miles.

While circling Earth, PAZ will cover the entire globe in 24 hours, serving both government and commercial needs.

In addtion to the radar instrument capable of collecting images day or night and regardless of weather conditions, PAZ also carries other sensors for meteorological and ship tracking purposes. 

PAZ, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Defense, managed by private firm Hisdesat and built by Airbus, became the third satellite in a high-resolution constellation.

The Falcon 9 rocket speeds upward Thursday morning after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Click to view larger
The Falcon 9 rocket speeds upward Thursday morning after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  (Ronald Williams photo)

A pair of prototype micro-satellites for the SpaceX's planned Starlink constellation also hitched a ride on the rocket, founder Elon Musk confirmed.

“If anyone is curious, the name was inspired by The Fault in Our Stars,” Musk said, referring to the John Green novel and romantic drama movie released in 2014.. 

Starlink satellites were designed for a constallation to deliver Internet service anywhere on the globe.

“However, even if these satellites work as planned we still have considerable technical work ahead of us to design and deploy a low-earth orbit satellite constellation," said Tom Praderio a SpaceX engineer. "It’s success will provide people in low- to moderate-population densities around the world with affordable high-speed Internet access including many that have never had Internet access before."

Those satellites, dubbed Tintin A and B, deployed and communicated with ground stations on Earth, Musk said hours after launch.

The booster used for this mission previously launched the Formosat-5 mission from Vandenberg in August.

After Thursday's flight, SpaceX did not attempt to recover Falcon's first-stage booster via landing on a barge. 

However, the firm did try to capture the rocket’s payload fairing, or nosecone, as it fell back from space at eight times the speed of sound. 

“It has onboard thrusters and a guidance system to bring it through the atmosphere intact, then releases a parafoil and our ship, named Mr. Steven, with basically a giant catcher’s mitt welded on, tries to catch it,” Musk said. 

Later, he said the fairing parafoil deployed as planned, adding, "Now trying to catch it."

"Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water," he said. "Should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent."

The next Falcon 9 rocket launch from Vandenberg will send another 10 Iridium Next satellites to space, the first set since January 2017.

That mission had been planned for no earlier than March 20, but may be a few days later due to the delays for the PAZ mission.

Check back with Noozhawk for updates to this story.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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