SpaceX launches for two customers, misses a fairing recovery

Falcon 9 on the launchpad

A pair of identical, sportscar-sized satellites are poised to zoom around the Earth and track changes in water and ice, offering new insights into global warming and sea level rise, NASA said Monday.

"Water is critical to every aspect of life on Earth - for health, for agriculture, for maintaining our way of living", said Michael Watkins, GRACE-FO science lead and director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The Iridium Next communications satellites that SpaceX is launching with GRACE-FO are the latest in a series for Iridium Communications to build up that company's satellite constellation.

Although SpaceX will not seek to recover the first stage, it will attempt to recover one half of the rocket's payload fairing, using a system of on-board thrusters and parachutes to steer the fairing-half back to the Pacific Ocean toward a boat named Mr. Steven.

Without access to Dnepr, Iridium and the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ) joined forces to book a single Falcon 9, splitting the cost between them.

This is an unusual launch - the rocket will be making some complicated maneuvers 300 miles up to make sure NASA's satellites are deployed correctly, then it travels the rest of the way to the targeted orbit for the communication satellites. The company successfully launched a used Falcon 9 on Tuesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex in California. The rocket was a Block 4 version, designed for two to three reflights of the same first stage.




A total of 75 satellites for Iridium are being sent to orbit as part of the upgrade, taking place over eight launches with SpaceX.

Chaplain said a successful May 11 test launch "is good news for GPS III, but more detailed assessments of that flight and subsequent flights will need to be made to assure the Air Force that the vehicle is ready to fly satellites crucial to national security". The satellites for Iridium Communications' next-generation fleet were released in a process completed a little more than an hour after liftoff.

Because Earth isn't a perfectly uniform sphere, areas of space directly above land masses exert more pull than open water.

"GRACE was really a revolutionary mission for us understanding the water cycle and how the climate behaves and the trends which are taking place over the last 10 or 15 years", Frank Webb, GRACE-FO project scientist, told a pre-launch press conference. They will use microwave tracking that can measure the distance between the two 1,300-pound satellites to within the diameter of a red blood cell.

Today's launch was the tenth SpaceX mission conducted this year.

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