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SpaceX Gets Ready for Monday Iridium Launch After FAA Grants License - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Jan-2017
Updated: 08-Jan-2017 02:19 PM

The FAA today approved a launch license for SpaceX following its acceptance of the company's report on a September 1 incident that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the Israeli AMOS-6 communications satellite.  The launch license allows SpaceX to proceed with the launch of 10 Iridium communications satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  The launch is scheduled for Monday, January 9, weather permitting.  [UPDATE:  The launch has been postponed to January 14 at 9:54:34 am Pacific Time]

SpaceX and Iridium earlier indicated that the launch would take place on Sunday.  The reason for the one-day delay has not been revealed. 

[UPDATE: The delay from January 9 to January 14 is due to weather.]

The launch will place 10 of Iridium's next-generation satellites, Iridium NEXT, into orbit.  Iridium operates a constellation of 66 satellites (plus spares) to provide mobile communications services similar to terrestrial cell phones, but using satellites instead of cell towers to relay the signals.

This is the first SpaceX launch since the September 1, 2016 incident when a Falcon 9 rocket on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL was engulfed in flames and exploded during fueling for a routine static fire test two days prior to the scheduled launch.  The pad at CCAFS's Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) was badly damaged.   SpaceX determined that although a single definitive cause could not be identified, the most likely cause was accumulation of oxygen between the liner of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) in a liquid oxygen (LOX) tank in the rocket's second stage.

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) is in charge of facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry and issues licenses for commercial launches like those carried out by SpaceX.  Under those regulations, the company itself, not the government, is in charge of investigating any launch mishaps.  SpaceX carried out this investigation, but with the participation of the FAA, the Air Force and NASA, among others.  The FAA needs to be satisfied with the investigation to determine whether to issue new launch licenses.  NASA and the Air Force are SpaceX customers and lease launch pads to SpaceX -- the Air Force's SLC-40 at CCAFS and SLC-4E at Vandenberg, and NASA's Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, adjacent to CCAFS.

The FAA announced that it approved the launch license today, which is actually for seven launches from SLC-4E, each delivering 10 Iridium NEXT satellites to orbit.   In an emailed statement, it said: "The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation. SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose."

Iridium later said via Twitter (@IridiumComm) that the launch will take place at 10:22 am Pacific Standard Time (1:22 pm EST) on Monday, January 9, weather permitting.  The routine static fire test of this Falcon 9 was successfully completed yesterday.  In a static fire test, the rocket is fueled and ignited, but the lock down clamps remain in place so the rocket stays on the pad. 

[UPDATE:  Iridium said on January 8 that the launch was postponed to January 14 at 9:54:34 am Pacific Standard Time due to "high winds and rain" in the forecast.]


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