SpaceX plans to launch its third Falcon 9 rocket in just nine days Sunday afternoon from Florida, officials announced Tuesday.
The fast-growing Hawthorne rocket maker is working at a feverish pace to launch as often as possible for customers who want to be the first to build out their modern outer-space communications networks.
On Sunday, SpaceX delivered 10 Iridium NEXT satellites to orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, after sending a Bulgarian television and data satellite into space from Florida two days earlier. On June 3, a delivery for NASA to the International Space Station brought science research and supplies.
The Sunday launch would be SpaceX’s first orbital delivery for Intelsat, which has a West Coast sales office in Long Beach.
The Falcon 9 rocket is set to blast off at 4:36 p.m. PDT from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex-39A, the home of the historic Apollo missions. It would carry a nearly 7-ton communications satellite to bring high-capacity data streams for mobile and government use in the Caribbean, and across Europe and Africa.
$10 billion backlog
The 15-year-old commercial rocket company, formally Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has had 36 successful missions and only a few failures since its inaugural flight seven years ago.
But a Sept. 1 explosion destroyed nearly $200 million in satellite equipment during a routine test fire, prompting a four-month investigation and forcing the company to stay grounded through the end of 2016.
At the time, SpaceX officials said they had more than 70 customer missions waiting, worth more than $10 billion to the company.
Since the company resumed flight in January, it has delivered to orbit seven rocket payloads from Florida and two from Lompoc.
Both of its West Coast launches this year were for Iridium, which invested about $500 million in SpaceX for a total of 10 orbital deliveries.
Iridium CEO Matt Desch said Sunday that he had hoped to deliver the second set 10 satellites of an 81-satellite network by April, but was forced to wait until this month because of SpaceX’s delays.
“Reliability and cadence, to me, are more important than anything right now,” Desch said. “Especially because of the issue last year that delayed us and delayed everybody. There’s a bit of catch-up this year. I’m not unhappy. They’re meeting our general requirements. But (SpaceX) knows, and they’re sensitive to that.”
Desch said he expects to get at least two more launches this year, but would like more. Iridium has at least 45 next-generation satellites ready and waiting for flights, he said.
“We have broadband services that our customers are waiting on and other things,” Desch said. “We’ve been pushing as hard as anybody.”
Even as it contends with customers like Desch, who are anxious to get their new technologies to outer space, SpaceX is expanding and developing new equipment.
On Sunday, it debuted new grid fins made of more heat-resistant titanium. The mesh, flipper-like appendages are used by the company to help direct first-stage boosters back to Earth after they separate from the rocket’s second stage, which delivers payloads to orbit.
“New titanium grid fins worked even better than expected,” CEO Elon Musk tweeted, after Sunday’s launch. “Should be capable of an indefinite number of flights with no service.”
Musk, who plans to develop a fleet of instantaneously reusable rockets, is also awaiting Federal Communications Commission approval of a SpaceX proposal to launch up to 11,000 small data satellites.
Meanwhile, Musk is working with politicians around the country to loosen permitting restrictions to allow advanced transportation systems, including his futuristic Hyperloop concept. The mass-transit system Musk proposed in 2013 is being pursued globally by two Los Angeles-based Hyperloop companies.
Musk also has a team of engineers working on developing a faster, more efficient tunnel-boring machine in Hawthorne that would make underground freeways possible.
But Desch and other SpaceX customers are keenly focused on the company’s ability to launch as often as possible.
“I don’t think (SpaceX) knows exactly what’s going to happen next June yet. But, someday, if you’re really going to be launching every week or two, you’ve got to know that with a level of clarity,” Desch said. “But I think their planning cycles are getting better and better. So I really think this is a very transformative year for them.”