SpaceX Back in Action for 2017
On Jan. 14, the private spaceflight company SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 commercial communications satellites in a flawless liftoff from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. The mission was SpaceX's first flight since a Sept. 1 explosion destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 satellite payload during a test at the company's launchpad at Florida's Cape Canaveral Florida.
If you missed the launch, you can watch video of the Falcon 9 rocket soaring into space here, and click the arrows to relive the flight in photos by SpaceX (and later Space.com's own Calla Cofield, who witnessed the launch first-hand).
FIRST STOP: High Stakes
SpaceX (and its customer, satellite communications operator Iridium) had a lot riding on the Jan. 14 launch. For SpaceX, it was a return to flight after more than four months of down time to track the cause of the Sept. 1, 2016 explosion. The company ultimately traced the cause to the aluminum of a helium tank inside the upper stage of the two-stage Falcon 9 booster and devised measures to avoid the problem moving forward.
But for Iridium, the stakes were high for a different reason.
NEXT: Building a Constellation
Building a Constellation
For Iridium, more than just tech was riding on the Falcon 9. The rocket was carrying Iridium-1, the first wave of the company's vast new Iridium NEXT mobile communications satellite constellation, a network that - when complete - will consist of 70 satellites providing vast coverage for Iridium's customers.
Iridium built the Iridium NEXT satellites to launch 10 at a time, so if something went wrong with the Falcon 9's return to flight, Iridium could have lost one-seventh of its planned constellation.
NEXT: Iridium's Big Dream
Iridium's Big Dream
Here's an illustration of what an Iridium NEXT satellite will look like when fully operational in orbit. Each of the satellites weighs 1,896-lbs. (860 kilograms).
Iridium representatives have said the 70-satellite Iridium NEXT constellation will be the largest satellite network in the world once it is complete. The remaining 60 satellites will be launched, 10 at a time, on six more Falcon 9 launches, all of them based out of Vandenberg. Ultimately, the Iridium NEXT satellites will replace Iridium's current 66-satellite network in place today.
At the time of truth, everything functioned perfectly. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:54:39 am PST to begin its swift journey into space.
NEXT: From Whence It Came
From Whence It Came
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets are covered with cameras to offer views of the booster during critical phases of flight. This view, facing down, offers a one last parting glance at the Falcon 9's launch site as the rocket ascends towards orbit.
NEXT: Gone, Baby, Gone
That Falcon 9 is Gone, Baby, Gone
When SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 on Jan. 14, Space.com's Calla Cofield was there to watch the return to flight with her own eyes. She captured this photo as the rocket soared into a clear, blue California sky.
That Falcon 9 is gone, baby, gone," Calla wrote on Twitter (you can follow her
NEXT: Wispy Trail
After the launch, all Calla could see was a wispy contrail from the Falcon 9's exhaust in a stunningly blue sky.
NEXT: Stage Separation
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets are two-stage boosters. About 2 1/2 minutes after launch, the first and second stages separate, and the second stage engine ignited to carry the 10 Iridium satellites to their destination in low-Earth orbit.
Here, the second stage engine glows a dull red as it powers its 10-satellite payload ever higher into orbit. Where's the Falcon 9 first stage? Well, it has its own mission ...
NEXT: Heading Back to Earth
Heading Back to Earth
SpaceX builds its Falcon 9 rockets to be partially reusable. To that end, the first stage of Falcon 9s are equipped with four grid-like fins at their top and enough fuel to return to Earth. SpaceX ultimately plans to reuse Falcon 9 boosters to reduce the cost of spaceflight. Here, you can see two of the grid fins, which help stabilize the booster during its descent back to Earth, along with a spectacular view of the planet below as the rocket returns home.
NEXT: Almost There (Stay on Target)
Almost There (Stay on Target)
The Falcon 9 booster had a specific target for its landing on Jan. 14: the drone ship "Just Read The Instructions" which was holding position just off the coast of California, within range of the Falcon 9.
Here, you can see the view from a camera on the Falcon 9 as it nears its target. The rocket booster's four landing legs are deployed and it's right on target (there is a giant "X" on the drone ship below that the Falcon 9 was aiming for).
In a first for SpaceX, the descent camera on the Falcon 9 beamed live video of the entire trip back to Earth - a flawless picture for a flawless landing.
NEXT: A Fiery Return
A Fiery Return
The first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets are powered by nine Merlin engines to reach orbit. But during descent, a single engine (as seen in action here) is enough to land the rocket.
This spectacular photo from SpaceX's drone ship "Just Read The Instructions" shows the Falcon 9 being silhouetted by the sun just seconds before touchdown.
NEXT: Right on Target
Right on Target
And here it is, the Falcon 9 first stage after its successful landing on the "Just Read the Instructions" drone ship. The booster is blackened from its fiery descent back to Earth.
NEXT: Meanwhile, Up in Space
Meanwhile, Up in Space
While the Falcon 9 first stage was making its way back to Earth, the second stage was fulfilling the primary mission to deliver its 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit. It took about 59 minutes for the satellites to reach the right position in orbit for their deployment. You can see several of the satellites in this view from a camera on the second stage just before the satellites were deployed.
NEXT: A Job Well Done
A Job Well Done
It took about 15 minutes for all 10 of the Iridium NEXT satellites to separate from the Falcon 9 upper stage, which is looking mighty empty in this view from the camera that minutes earlier had an eye full of satellites.
NEXT: More to Come
More to Come
With the Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit, SpaceX is looking toward a busy year in space for 2017.
The Hawthorne, California-based company aims to launch another commercial satellite - EchoStar 24 - on Jan. 30 from NASA's Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Pad 39A is the same launchpad used by NASA space shuttle missions and Apollo moon landing missions.
Our Full Wrap Story: SpaceX Returns to Flight with 10-Satellite Launch, Rocket Landing
- More Photos: SpaceX's Return-to-Flight Rocket Launch and Landing Success
- SpaceX: First Private Flights to Space Station
- SpaceX's Falcon 9: Rocket for the Dragon
- Tariq Malik, Space.com Managing Editor
Tariq joined Purch's Space.com team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.
- Tariq Malik, Space.com Managing Editor on