3 Months After Explosion, SpaceX Plans to Launch Rocket Bearing Satellites


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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded during the test firing of its engines at a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sept. 1.

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NASA

Three months after one of its rockets exploded on a launchpad, SpaceX hopes to resume launching in a couple of weeks.

Iridium Communications, which provides communications services through a constellation of more than 60 satellites, announced Thursday that it was aiming to launch the first batch of its next-generation satellites on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 16.

The launch hinges on approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is reviewing SpaceX’s investigation of the Sept. 1 launchpad explosion. A Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., caught fire and exploded during fueling before a test firing of its engines. The explosion destroyed a $200 million Israeli satellite that Facebook had planned to use to expand internet services in Africa and elsewhere.

But Matthew J. Desch, chief executive of Iridium, said his company had taken part in the SpaceX investigation, adding that he had read a preliminary explanation for the accident. “I wouldn’t approve our satellites to be launched if I wasn’t confident,” Mr. Desch said in an interview.

“We are looking forward to return to flight with the first Iridium NEXT launch,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement, referring to Iridium’s satellite constellation.

The F.A.A. said that the investigation was still underway and that it had not yet approved the launch.

SpaceX officials did not provide any new technical details of what went wrong in September.

In an interview on CNBC in November, Elon Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive, said the company had identified the cause. Liquid oxygen flowing into a second-stage tank had frozen solid, setting off a catastrophic sequence of events, he said. In that same interview, Mr. Musk said he hoped to resume flights in mid-December.

The explosion damaged SpaceX’s launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 Iridium satellites will instead lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the site of a second SpaceX launchpad.

Iridium provides communication services including satellite telephones through its network of satellites circling the Earth at an altitude of 485 miles. The original satellites launched two decades ago at a cost of $5 billion, but Iridium flopped, declaring bankruptcy in 1999. The company finally found its financial footing.

Sixty-five of the original satellites are still in orbit, and Iridium is planning to replace all of them in the next year and a half, with seven Falcon 9 launches carrying 70 satellites, each roughly the size of a Mini Cooper. The new satellites are bigger and more powerful, able to send data at faster rates. Iridium is also planning new services like the tracking of planes and ships in real time.

“This will know where every airplane is, second by second,” Mr. Desch said. That could prevent another disaster like the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished in March 2014. More important, Mr. Desch said, that kind of real-time global information would allow the assignment of more efficient flight paths for airliners while still making sure they stay safely apart.

For launches from Florida, SpaceX hopes to complete renovations at Launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, once used for space shuttle launches. It is tentatively aiming to resume cargo flights to the space station in January.

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