Update Jan. 11th, 2019 11:50 EST: All 10 Iridium satellites have been successfully deployed to low-Earth orbit.
Update Jan. 11th, 2019 11AM EST: The takeoff was successful but the launch is still ongoing. SpaceX also landed its Falcon 9 rocket on one of its drone ships following liftoff, bringing its total number of successful booster landings to 33.
Original: SpaceX is set to launch its first Falcon 9 rocket of the year this morning out of California — a flight that will also mark the first orbital mission of 2019 for the US. The company will be sending up 10 satellites for long-time customer Iridium. After takeoff, SpaceX will attempt its first rocket landing of the year by touching down on an autonomous drone ship in the Pacific.
Today’s flight, called Iridium-8, will send up the final batch of satellites for the Iridium NEXT constellation. SpaceX has held a contract with Iridium to launch all 75 in-orbit satellites for the constellation, which will provide telecommunications coverage from low Earth orbit. The constellation is a replacement and upgrade of Iridium’s original satellite fleet, which launched between 1997 and 2002. SpaceX has been periodically launching these new probes in batches of 10 from California, except for one flight that sent up five satellites. Today’s launch will make the orbiting NEXT constellation complete.
About 10 minutes after liftoff, SpaceX will aim for its Falcon 9 to touch down on a drone ship in the ocean. It’s been a little over a month since the company has recovered a rocket. SpaceX’s last flight in December was tasked with launching a GPS satellite for the US Air Force, and because of the parameters of the mission, the company opted not to land its Falcon 9 after launch. Before that flight, SpaceX actually botched a landing when a Falcon 9 headed for a concrete landing pad on the Florida coast wound up in the ocean instead.
Fortunately for SpaceX, today’s rocket has done all this before. This Falcon 9 previously launched the Telstar 18 VANTAGE satellite in September from Florida and then landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic. Perhaps it can pull off that same routine again, except from the West Coast. If this rocket does stick the landing today, it’ll mark the 33rd successful landing of a Falcon 9 rocket core.
Liftoff for today’s launch is scheduled for 10:31AM ET from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and SpaceX has an instantaneous window, so the company must launch at that time or push to another day. A backup launch window is available Saturday at 10:25AM ET. SpaceX’s coverage of the launch is set to begin 15 minutes before takeoff. Check back then to kick off the first US launch of 2019.