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Falcon 9’s Return to Flight After Explosion Set Later This Month From Vandenberg AFB

Rocket scheduled to carry 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-Earth orbit on Dec. 16

A Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to deliver 10 Iridium NEXT satellites, above, into low-Earth orbit on Dec. 16 after launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Click to view larger
A Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to deliver 10 Iridium NEXT satellites, above, into low-Earth orbit on Dec. 16 after launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Artist’s concept from Iridium LLC)

The Falcon 9 rocket’s return to flight after a fiery failure a few months ago is planned for this month from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Iridium LLC announced the Falcon 9 rocket launch from Space Launch Complex-4 is tentatively scheduled for 12:36 p.m. on Dec. 16.

The Falcon 9 will deliver 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-Earth orbit, and will mark the first flight since an on-pad test ended in an explosion Sept. 1. 

Iridium officials said the Dec. 16 launch is contingent upon the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of an Space Exploration Technologies anomaly. 

“The investigation has been conducted with FAA oversight,” Iridium officials said. “Iridium expects to be SpaceX’s first return to flight launch customer.”

In late October, SpaceX said investigators from the firm, the FAA, NASA and Air Force worked methodically through an extensive fault tree to pinpoint possible causes. 

“Previously, we announced the investigation was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank,” the company said in late October. 

While the root cause has not yet been confirmed, attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the liquid oxygen tank. 

“Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions,” the company said. “These conditions are mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded.”

Work has focused on finding the root cause plus improving helium-loading conditions. 

The Iridium satellites will mark the first of 70 second-generation spacecraft for a constellation of commercial craft use for assorted communications.

The first Iridium satellites arrived at the launch site in August following a road trip from the Orbital ATK satellite manufacturing facility in Arizona, with others following.

A total of 81 satellites are scheduled to roll off the assembly line, with 66 serving as the operational satellites to replace the existing Iridium network, officials said. The remainder will serve as spares, some positioned in space and others waiting on the ground to be called into service.

A majority of the first Iridium satellites were launched from Vandenberg from May 1997 through February 2002, aboard Delta 2 rockets. Others rode to space on Russian and Chinese rockets.

Vandenberg’s launch year began with a Falcon rocket blastoff to ferry the Jason-3 ocean-monitoring spacecraft into orbit.

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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