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Seven Satellites Share Falcon Rocket Launch from Vandenberg AFB

Space Exploration Technologies recycled rocket soared from base, carrying latest batch of Iridium Next satellites

Rocket blasting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base Click to view larger
A Falcon 9 rocket carrying seven satellites into orbit blasts off Tuesday afternoon from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (NASA photo)

Seven satellites, two for a NASA scientific mission and five to rebuild the Iridium constellation, shared a Falcon 9 rocket for their ride to space Tuesday afternoon from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The Space Exploration Technologies recycled rocket, standing 23 stories tall, blasted off at 12:47 p.m. from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base.

The NASA spacecraft, a pair called Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, succesfully separated from the rocket more than 11 minutes after blastoff, a SpaceX official said as applause could be heard in the background from his coworkers.

The rocket’s second-stage engine will reignite to deliver the Iridium Next quintet to a higher altitude, with separation of those five satellite expected more than an hour after blastoff.

Ground controllers communicated with the spacecraft which all were performing as expected, NASA and Iridium officials said.

A couple of small fires reportedly sparked after the rocket departed, with Vandenberg Fire Department and Santa Barbara County Fire Department tackling those blazes which can be common after launches.

In space, the twin NASA satellites will be separated by more than the distance of Los Angeles and San Diego as they collect data about Earth, the latest in a series of spacecraft to study the planet.

“GRACE Follow-On will be the two new kids on the block to continue to measure the mass changes of the Earth’s system from the storage of water in aquifers to the changes in ice sheets and glaciers,” said David Jarrett, GRACE-FO program executive for NASA. 

GRACE-FO involves an international partnership with the German Research Centre for Geosciences, with both organizations providing different aspects of the satellites and support equipment.

“This kind of cost sharing brings more bang to the buck, and Euro in the case of GRACE Follow-on, to the American and German people, as well as benefitting researchers from around the world,” said David Jarrett, GRACE-FO program executive for NASA. 

NASA contributed $430 million to the GRACE-FO mission.

The new satellites will continue the legacy of original GRACE spacecraft which spent 15 years before retiring in 2017 observing the movement of water and other mass on the planet by tracking the changing pull of gravity very precisely. 

“it’s a win-win situation for everyone because all countries benefit from the wealth of data that we gather about our complex ever-changing world and the impacts it has on our daily lives,” Jarrett said.

For Iridium, the launch pushes the total number of satellites to 55 closer toward replacing 20-year-old spacecraft, most of which also launched from Vandenberg.

Iridium was designed a 66-satellite constellation to provide voice and data communications across the globe. The firm plans to have several spare satellites in space and on the ground. 

Iridium CEO Matt Desch recently gave an update on the firm’s recent milestones including surpassing 1 million subscribers.

Other aspects of the service also have shown growth.

“We saw how important our services were last summer when hurricanes struck Texas and Puerto Rico and the surrounding areas,” Desch said. "The way Iridium was relied on in those days reminded and motivated our entire company about the importance of what we do and how we can help.”

In fact, the service did more than provide satellite phone capability, Desch said, adding Iridium provided command and control links for Google, tracked generators and more.

"Our strong presence in the world of safety services is a testament to the unique benefits our network can enable," Desch said. "With every successful launch, we are one step closer to Iridium Next being fully operational, which officially starts a new age of satellite connectivity.  

"When it comes to safety communications, especially for those operating in the skies or out at sea, having built-in network redundancy and resiliency enabled by our satellite's crosslinks is paramount, especially during times of distress.  We recognize this and feel that as the only network covering the entire planet, we have an inherent responsibility to constantly innovate for this critical arena."

The sixth Iridium Next launch came a day after the International maritime Organization safety committee agreed the Iridium network meets criteria to provide mobile satellite services in the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).

“This is a historic moment for the maritime industry and an honor for Iridium to be the second ever recognized provider for GMDSS services,” said Bryan Hartin, executive vice president, Iridium. “This is the dawn of a new era for mariner safety. We’ll bring a new choice and upgraded capabilities for mariners along with our truly global coverage that will for the first time extend the reach of satellite-based GMDSS to even the most remote waterways.”

Ten more Iridium satellites are set to launch in early July, with the final mission approximately eight weeks later, both using Falcon 9 rockets set to launch from Vandenberg.

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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