SpaceX is aiming to return their Falcon-9 rocket to flight (RTF) later this month from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., pending FAA approval following a Sept. 1 explosion at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., which took out their rocket, launch complex, and their customer’s AMOS-6 satellite.
Although the investigation is still ongoing, SpaceX is confident that the accident was related to flight preparation, rather than a vehicle or engineering design issue. That said, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company is now targeting Dec. 16 to return Falcon-9 to launch, aiming for a 12:36 p.m. PST liftoff from Space Launch Complex 4E to deliver 10 Iridium NEXT satellites to low-Earth orbit.
The 10 satellites represent the first set of 70 total that Iridium is launching with SpaceX to replace their current constellation; all of which are contracted to fly on seven Falcon-9 launches over the next 18 months (prior to the AMOS-6 accident, Iridium wanted all their launches flown by the end of 2017).
As outlined on Iridium’s website: “The Iridium NEXT satellite constellation uses a unique cross-linked architecture made possible by four antennae on each satellite, allowing them to communicate with each other and deliver a truly global network. Each satellite also features a main mission antenna that links the subscriber to this cross-linked infrastructure. Once fully operational, Iridium NEXT will offer greater bandwidth, data speeds and other functionalities (like global, real-time aircraft and ship surveillance).”
Although a root cause for the AMOS-6 accident has yet to be confirmed, the investigation has focused heavily on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the rocket’s second stage liquid oxygen tank, with special attention narrowed to “one of the three composite over wrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank,” said SpaceX in an Oct. 28 update.
A company spokesperson declined to comment on what changes SpaceX will put into play during final preparations to fly Iridium’s booster, in comparison to the AMOS-6 rocket or prior Falcon-9 fueling operations. SpaceX also declined to update on progress at their Cape Canaveral Launch Complex-40 and historic NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) pad 39A, where Falcon Heavy flights and Falcon-9 crews will be launching from in the near future (although the October 2016 update on the company’s website does mention they expect pad 39A to be ready for Falcon-9 launches by the end of this year).
Launch Complex-40 took serious damage from the explosion Sept. 1, and Space Florida recently requested $5 million in funds from the Florida Department of Transportation for help with “infrastructure improvements” on KSC pad 39A for SpaceX, who currently has a 20-year lease for the historic launch pad, since December 2014.
It is assumed SpaceX will attempt another landing of their rocket on one of two offshore autonomous barges the company operates for Iridium’s first booster, but when asked about it this afternoon SpaceX declined to comment.