SpaceX Iridium NEXT launch

This morning’s launch marks the 24th successful launch in a row for SpaceX. A Falcon 9 rocket thundered into the early morning sky above California’s coast carrying the fifth set of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites. All 10 were successfully placed into low-Earth orbit.

SpaceX opted not to perform a flashy first-stage landing, but are trying to catch another piece of the rocket – the fairing. This resembles a nose cone and protects the payloads as the Falcon 9 soars into the sky. It also keeps the rocket more aerodynamic. Once in the space, the fairing is ejected and falls back to Earth.

If SpaceX can start recovering and reusing the fairing, it’ll save them about $6 million/per launch according to NASASpaceFlight.

To recover the fairing, SpaceX added another boat to its fleet. Meet Mr. Stevens.

SpaceX Mr. Stevens boat

Yep, that’s a huge net strung up towards the back of the boat. No word yet if Mr. Stevens managed to catch the fairing this time.

As for the Iridium satellites? Each one was placed in their intended low-Earth orbit. Eventually, Iridium plans to have an 81-satellite constellation powering communications across the globe. Only 66 satellites are needed for 100% coverage. The other 15 will act as in-orbit spares in case something happens.

But there is one downside to the new fleet of Iridium satellites. They won’t feature Iridium flares. My ‘Sky Guide’ app pings off Iridium flares all the time. The old Iridium communication satellites would sometimes shine brightly in the night sky thanks to its antenna design. Three polished antennas would catch sunlight periodically and reflect it down to Earth.

The new Iridium NEXT satellite design is not expected to produce flares as often as the old constellation.

Here’s a great example of what an Iridium flare looks like.

SpaceX heads back to Cape Canaveral for another launch on April 2nd. A Falcon 9 rocket will carry several tons of supplies up to the International Space Station in the first resupply mission of the year for SpaceX.

So far, the weather is looking good with an 80% chance of ‘GO’ conditions. And it looks like there will not be a landing attempt for this launch either.

The April 16th SpaceX launch is the one I’m pumped to see. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has cleared its final review for launch, and the last bit of work is being completed to get it ready for its mid-April launch. TESS will focus on stars less than 300 light-years way and up to 100 times brighter than the stars Kepler looks at.

The brighter stars let researchers use spectroscopy (basically, how an exoplanet and atmosphere absorbs its host starlight). Using this, researchers can tease out details about the planet’s mass, density, and atmospheric composition.

April is setting up to be quite the busy month for folks at SpaceX and NASA.