A Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base heads into orbit Saturday, carrying 21 satellites.
A Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base heads into orbit Saturday, carrying 21 satellites. Credit: SpaceX photo

The 21 satellites aboard a Falcon 9 rocket’s rideshare flight arrived in orbit after the mission’s second countdown ended with a successful liftoff on a foggy Saturday morning at Vandenberg Space Force Base.

The SpaceX rocket blasted off at 6:16 a.m. from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base after a one-day delay. The first countdown on Friday’s ended with an aborted liftoff 55 seconds before departure.

Deployment of the Iridium satellites began approximately 1 hour after liftoff, followed by the OneWeb spacecraft with the sequence ending 90 minutes after launch. 

Satellites for the two separate firms’ constellations shared the Falcon 9 rocket launch for their trip to space.

The five Iridium satellites will serve as in-orbit spares for the constellation to provide voice and data communications anywhere on the globe. 

The SpaceX team at Vandenberg completed eight previous launches of Iridium’s second-generation satellites between 2017 and 2019.

“These extra satellites will increase Iridium constellation’s resiliency bringing the number of spare satellites in orbit to 14 and the total constellation size to 80 satellites,” SpaceX commentator Siva Bharadvaj, also a space operations engineer.

After the satellites arrived in orbit, Iridium’s leader Matt Desch declared them “all healthy and talking!”

Vandenberg also hosted the majority of the first-generation Iridium satellites that launched more than two decades ago on Delta II rockets in a then-trailblazing effort.

Iridium earned its name for the 77th element on the Periodic Table after system designers expected to need that many satellites to cover the globe. They later determined 66 satellites would work, but declined to switch the name to dysprosium.

An online Iridium Museum recalls those early days that began with anticipation and ended with Iridium’s bankruptcy before financial investors rescued and ultimately revived the system.

For Saturday’s mission. the Iridium satellites sat on the top the dispenser with OneWeb spacecraft stowed below. 

OneWeb is a constellation of more than 600 satellites to deliver internet service to remote and rural areas of the globe where access isn’t normally available or reliable.

Saturday signaled the 19th launch for OneWeb and the fourth aboard a SpaceX rocket. This mission pushed the total number of satellites in space to 634 in orbit. 

In addition to 15 OneWeb satellites, the Falcon rocket also carried OneWeb’s JoeySat to demonstrate the technology to allow the craft to switch the direction and strength of signals based on customer needs or demands.

If proven successful, this beam-hopping technology could be incorporated into OneWeb’s next generation of satellites. 

“We are delighted to report we have made contact with all 16 satellites launched today…,” OneWeb said on Twitter.

This marked the 11th mission for the first-stage booster, or lower two-thirds of the rocket. After finishing its chores, the booster successfully landed on the drone ship dubbed Of Course I Still Love You in the Pacific Ocean about 400 miles away nearly 9 minutes after departure.

Saturday’s mission was the 33rd of the year for SpaceX and the firm’s 10th from the West Coast in 2023.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.