Just two days after launching a Bulgarian communications satellite from Florida, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted 10 Iridium NEXT telephone relay stations into orbit Sunday after a foggy afternoon launch from California.
Despite blustery winds and high seas, the California rocket builder also was able to recover the booster’s first stage with a pinpoint landing on an off-shore droneship, SpaceX’s 13th successful landing in a row.
More important for Iridium, it was the second batch of 10 Iridium NEXT spacecraft successfully launched by SpaceX under contracts with the satellite telephone provider to deploy 75 of the 81 relay stations being built to replace the company’s current fleet of aging first-generation spacecraft.
“Now that we’re into the launch phase after more than seven years of effort, we’re poised to complete the replacement transformation of our very unique network through a total of eight launches spread over a very short 18 months,” Iridium CEO Matthew Desch told reporters last week.
“After this second launch, we have six more launches scheduled with SpaceX over the following 12 months, so our network activities in space are really going to get a bit frenetic.”
Iridium telephone customers rely on 66 satellites operating in six orbital planes to make and receive calls anywhere in the world. The company’s original block 1 satellites are being replaced by 66 Iridium NEXT spacecraft with nine more serving as in-orbit spares. Another six will be held on the ground for launch as needed.
Desch said the rapid-fire launch pace will quickly pay off “as completing Iridium NEXT will mean the start of some…