SpaceX launches, releases NASA's GRACE-FO, Iridium Next satellites

SpaceX launches, releases NASA's GRACE-FO, Iridium Next satellites

SpaceX is getting a lot of mileage out of its used rockets. GRACE-FO is sharing its ride to orbit with five Iridium NEXT communications satellites as part of a commercial ride-share agreement.

The satellite valued at about $528 million would be launched on the latest version of the Falcon 9 rocket from Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Iridium shares rose more than 8 percent earlier Tuesday for the biggest intraday gain in nearly seven months.

At 2 minutes and 49 seconds into the flight, the first stage will separate and head for a watery grave and 23 seconds later the aluminium and carbon fiber fairing protecting the payload will peel off and head back to Earth for a hoped-for recovery. The stream will spring to life shortly before the scheduled launch opportunity and SpaceX will provide commentary and additional details as the event unfolds. Billing it as one of the largest tech upgrades in history, CEO Matt Desch told investors last month that the majority of his network's traffic is now running on the 50 new satellites SpaceX has launched since January 2017.

The first-ever SpaceX launch from Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex-4 occurred on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013.

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SpaceX also plans to use the Block 5 to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, a plan that awaits certification and approval by NASA. Desch expects the rest of the satellites to go up this year, "completing our Iridium NEXT constellation and starting on a well deserved [capital expenditures] holiday".

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with five next-generation Iridium communications satellites and two U.S. GRACE-Fo is a joint project between NASA and Germany's GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences.

"For the first few days after launch, the lower, faster satellite will pull slowly ahead of the other until the two satellites are approximately 137 miles apart - the optimal separation distance for science operations", NASA said in a mission update. The photo shows the satellites in the testing facility of IABG, an Airbus subcontractor, in Munich. They'll measure the distribution of the Earth's mass and can monitor changes in ice sheets, glaciers and sea level, according to NASA. 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.

"GRACE was really a revolutionary mission for us understanding the water cycle and how the climate behaves", said Frank Webb, GRACE-FO project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during a pre-launch briefing May 21.

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