Landed Falcon 9 booster sails into Los Angeles

by Chris Bergin

For the first time on the West Coast, a recovered Falcon 9 first stage has made it back to port, intact. Following its role with the successful launch of ten Iridium NEXT satellites, the booster completed a bullseye return on to the deck of SpaceX’s drone ship, before arriving in the Port of Los Angeles early on Tuesday morning.

Falcon 9 Return:

The primary mission always concentrates on the successful deployment of the payload into the required orbit.

With SpaceX returning to launch operations for the first time since the company lost the Falcon 9 – and AMOS-6 payload – during a Static Fire anomaly, the focus on a successful return was always on the release of the ten Iridium NEXT satellites. That goal was achieved with flying colors.

(Photo from a collection taken from the air by L2 member WheelsStop – collection *here*)

This opening salvo for Iridium NEXT delivered the birds to a 625 kilometer temporary parking orbit where they will be tested and exercised by Iridium over the coming weeks. The latest report notes all ten satellites are performing without issue.

Upon meeting testing and validation requirements, the satellites will then be moved into their 780 km operational orbit and begin providing service to Iridium’s customers.

“Iridium launched a new era in the history of our company and a new era in space as we start to deliver the next-generation of satellite communications,” noted Matt Desch, chief executive officer of Iridium – who had shown great patience and support for SpaceX as they worked through the steps to return to flight.

“We have been working endless hours for the last eight years to get to this day, and to finally be here with ten Iridium NEXT satellites successfully launched into low-Earth orbit is a fulfilling moment. We are incredibly thankful for all of the hard work from our team, as well as our partners, to help us achieve this milestone.”

While this mission was still proceeding, the first stage began its return home.

Just like in SpaceX’s previous Return To Flight mission – involving the ORBCOMM mission that followed the loss of the CRS-7 Dragon mission – SpaceX would double up on their success with the booster making an impressive successful touchdown, the first on the West Coast.

SpaceX also live webcast the return of the booster, providing stunning views from the viewpoint of the stage, as it conducted its burns and landed on the drone ship.

The successful landing was on the deck of “Just Read The Instructions”, SpaceX’s West Coast based Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS).

A previous attempt, with the Jason-3 mission, also saw the first stage touch down on Just Read the Instructions in a good position on the deck.

However, one of its landing legs failed to lock into position causing the stage to topple over and explode.

The sad-looking remains of the Jason-3 booster were later spotted in a storage yard near a Los Angeles airport (L2).

The fate of B1029, as is the Iridium NEXT’ first stage’s “name”, will be a happier one, with the prospect – pending successful checkouts, refurbishment and testing – it will fly again on another mission, potentially as a side booster for a future Falcon Heavy mission, as will be the case with some of the previously returned stages.

It will first need to undergo a few days of work at the Port of Los Angeles, likely mirroring previous work that has been conducted at Port Canaveral.

2016-05-10-032917That process was refined as more boosters returned to the Cape, with dockside processing conducted in a shorter period of time, since engineers worked on the roadmap that was built for the processing of the CRS-8 first stage – the first booster to be recovered at sea.

Those procedures – worked for the Iridium NEXT stage – will include the crane driven translation on to its processing mount, which will allow for additional safing and the removal of the four landing legs.

The stage will then be translated horizontal onto its transporter. It is not yet clear if the stage will eventually head home to its birthplace at the Hawthorne factory or straight to McGregor for testing.

With SpaceX back into launch operations, all eyes are on the next mission, which will involve the lofting of the EchoStar 23 satellite on a Falcon 9.

Another milestone will be achieved with this launch, given it will take place from the historic LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

A placeholder was refined to show a January 26th launch target – around midnight local time.

It is expected this date will slip to the right, via natural realignment as the flow moves closer to launch. However, it has remained set for over a week, and has since been classed as “Range Approved”. The next update is expected in the next few days.

EDIT: That update was forthcoming, with the latest NET (No Earlier Than) target showing as January 30.

With the rocket and payload both at the launch site, the main constraint to that date will be the readiness of the launch pad, which has undergone a large amount of changes during its transition from a Space Shuttle pad to one that will be able to launch both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

The latest L2 Status report related to checks on the Rain Birds that work as the Sound Suppression System for SpaceX launches. This will utilize some of the heritage Shuttle pad system plumbing.

SpaceX intends to hit the ground running since returning to flight, with another mission already in preparation. While the Falcon 9 was preparing to launch with Iridium NEXT, another Falcon 9 booster was spotted on a misty test stand at McGregor undergoing testing.

SpaceX is yet to confirm which mission this booster will be associated with, not least with NASA still debating when the CRS-10 mission will launch with the next Dragon mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

(Images: SpaceX, Stratohonet Twitter – and L2 – various, including “WheelsStop” and Marek Cyzio)

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