A SpaceX rocket soared into the California morning sky to deliver two mini-fleets of satellites into orbit, then landed at sea on Friday (May 20), capturing amazing video along the way.
The Falcon 9 rocket, topped with 21 satellites for the companies Iridium and OneWeb, lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4 East Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 9:16 a.m. EDT (1316GMT; 6:16 a.m. local California time).
The successful launch came one day after a last-minute abort on Friday, when SpaceX called off the flight just 55 seconds before liftoff.
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“Since then, the teams have completed checkouts on the vehicle and the ground systems and we’re looking good going into today’s attempt,” SpaceX operations engineer Siva Bharadvaj said during the company’s launch commentary.
Indeed, the launch went smoothly aside from foggy ground weather, with the Falcon 9 rocket punching through the low clouds over Vandenberg and soaring into a stunning morning sky, broadcasting stunning video of its Earth departure (and subsequent return).
The Falcon 9’s first stage returned to Earth about nine minutes after liftoff, touching down on the SpaceX droneship Of Course I Still Love You stationed in the Pacific Ocean. It was the 11th launch and landing for this particular booster, and the 193rd landing of a SpaceX orbital class rocket, according to Bharadvaj and a mission description.
The rocket’s upper stage, meanwhile, continued carrying the satellites — five belonging to Iridium and the other 16 to OneWeb — to low Earth orbit. They were all expected to be deployed over a 30-minute period scheduled to begin about an hour after liftoff. SpaceX used a Merlin engine with a shortened nozzle on this flight due to its payload needs.
“The shortened nozzle made its debut on the Transporter 7 mission,” Bharadvaj said. “It’ll continue to be used on missions that don’t need quite as much performance to get to their final destination.”
Fifteen of the OneWeb satellites will further build out the company’s broadband constellation in low Earth orbit. The 16th is a technology demonstrator known as JoeySat.
“JoeySat contains several new technologies, including a digitally regenerative payload and demonstration of multi-beam electronically steered phased array antennas,” OneWeb wrote in a mission description.
SpaceX has already launched three batches of OneWeb internet satellites, sending 40 spacecraft skyward on each of those previous missions.
The five Iridium satellites are spares that will provide further backup for the company’s 66 currently operational telecom satellites. (Iridium already has nine spare satellites in orbit.)
“Our constellation is incredibly healthy; however, the spare satellites have no utility to us on the ground,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch said in a statement in September 2022, when this SpaceX launch was announced.
“We built extra satellites as an insurance policy, and with SpaceX’s stellar track record, we look forward to another successful launch, which will position us even better to replicate the longevity of our first constellation,” he added.
This launch will be the second in rapid succession for SpaceX. The company also launched 22 of its own Starlink “V2 mini” internet satellites from Florida’s Space Coast on Friday.
And SpaceX isn’t finished for the weekend.
On Sunday (May 21), the company will launch its third rocket in three days, this time to fly four private astronauts to the International Space Station for the commercial company Axiom Space. Called the Ax-2 mission, the flight is commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, with paying customer John Shoffner serving as pilot.
Saudi Arabia is flying two astronauts on the mission, Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, with Barnawi becoming the first Saudi woman to fly in space. You can follow the mission on Space.com with our Ax-2 mission live updates page. Liftoff is set for 5:37 p.m. EDT (2137 GMT) on Sunday.
Saturday’s launch marked SpaceX’s 33rd launch of 2023 and its 238th launch overall.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us @Spacedotcom, or on Facebook and Instagram.