SpaceX launches five Iridium satellites and twin science spacecraft

SpaceX Launches Rapid Reuse Falcon 9 Rocket

SpaceX played the role of carpool driver on Tuesday, ferrying seven satellites into space.

The fairing recovery ship "came very close but not quite", he said on SpaceX's webcast. The launch will pose a special challenge for SpaceX as it requires the two payloads to be delivered at different altitudes, with NASA's hardware being deployed at around 300 miles and the Iridium NEXT satellites at almost 500 miles.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch told investors last month that the majority of his network's traffic is now running on the 50 new satellites SpaceX has launched since January 2017.

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The company did try to recover the payload fairings, used to protect the satellites as the rocket exited the atmosphere, but was unsuccessful. The Falcon 9's first and second stages will separate seconds later.

The rocket roared off from a pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 12:47 p.m. and arced over the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles as it headed toward the South Pole.

The U.S. Air Force has delayed the launch of its first Global Positioning System III satellite from this month to October at the earliest as it reviews the upgraded rocket that Elon Musk's SpaceX plans to use to boost it into orbit.

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The NASA satellites are part of a mission called Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO). Tuesday's mission was conducted with an outgoing Block 4 version.

For the first few days after launch, the lower, faster satellite will pull slowly ahead of the other until the two satellites are approximately 137 miles (220 kilometers) apart - the optimal separation distance for science operations. The May 22 launch grows the constellation to 55 Iridium Next satellites in orbit. When complete, the Iridium Next constellation will include 75 satellites - 66 operational satellites and nine spares. Iridium spent around $3 billion on Iridium Next, purchasing the satellites from Thales Alenia Space in Europe. Rather, "the instrument is really the two satellites together as a system" to detect changes in Earth's gravity, he said. When they pass over a part of the Earth where the strength of the gravity field either increases or decreases, it will affect the distance between the two spacecraft ever so slightly.

The GRACE-FO mission is a joint effort of NASA and GFZ. GRACE Follow-On will spend the next five years mapping Earth's gravity to study the effects of climate change around the world.

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SpaceX, and an earlier model of the Falcon, were certified in May 2015 for military missions, and it won the Air Force's first competitive launch a year later when the United Launch Alliance of Boeing Co. and Lockheed, which long held exclusive rights to military missions, declined to bid on the GPS III launches.

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