On Saturday, SpaceX launched a Falcon rocket from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:54 AM local time. It marked the company’s first launch since a rocket exploded on its launch pad in September. Elon Musk’s space flight company has grounded flights since the September explosion, in which a Falcon 9 rocket combusted during fueling, ahead of a pre-flight test. That explosion destroyed a 62-million dollar Falcon rocket, and a 200 million dollar Israeli communication satellite.
Saturday’s launch, to send 10 satellites into orbit for Iridium Communications Inc, went successfully. The rocket’s first stage separated and landed on a seafaring platform called a drone ship, in the Pacific Ocean, which only six previous SpaceX rockets have managed successfully. SpaceX plans to reuse its rockets to significantly lower costs. Rockets cost tens of millions of dollars and are traditionally disposed of after one use, meaning that reusable rockets will be a significant innovation to make space travel more accessible.
Saturday’s mission was a test of changes made since the September explosion. The 10 satellites were reported to have been placed in orbit successfully. Iridium is using the satellites to develop a voice and data communications network, which they are calling NEXT.
Since September, SpaceX investigators determined that the explosion was caused by a burst tank of helium inside the second-stage liquid oxygen tank. The canister is still being redesigned, and until then, SpaceX is using a modified fueling procedure.
The explosion caused delays in Musk’s ambitious plans for SpaceX, which include a voyage to Mars, and shuttling US astronauts into space, beginning next year. Saturday’s launch will begin a long process of catching up on a backlog of over 70 missions for the Falcon rockets, with a total cost of over 10 billion dollars. The mission is the first of a contract of seven flights with Iridium Communications, worth a total of 468.1 million, according to SpaceX spokesperson Diane Hockenberry.
The company is planning 27 rocket launches in 2017, which will more than triple the 8 flights launched by SpaceX in 2016, according to the Wall Street Journal. The agenda includes the debut of a heavy-lift booster, and the launch of its first reused rocket. The company also plans to complete repairs on the Florida launchpad damaged by the September explosion.
In addition to missions for private firms, SpaceX is one of only two companies Nasa has hired to shuttle cargo to the International Space Station.