VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE >> SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is locked and loaded on its launchpad nestled in the hills of Vandenberg Air Force Base’s vast, remote complex, prepared for a Sunday afternoon liftoff.
As it patiently awaited action on Saturday, the massive white rocket’s upper second stage — carrying its outer-space-bound cargo — was obscured by fog. But officials expect clear skies over Lompoc for launch at 1:24 p.m.
Photographers set up cameras Saturday covered with protective buckets to keep out moisture and glare. They will shoot images of the launch for media outlets around the world remotely, using timers, a safety precaution.
This marks Hawthorne-based SpaceX’s fourth launch from the West Coast, where it is busy building the company’s third U.S. launchpad.
The trip comes just two days after SpaceX launched a Bulgarian television and data communications satellite from Florida.
The company will attempt Sunday its third orbital delivery this month — making it the busiest launch month ever for high-profile entrepreneur Elon Musk’s 15-year-old rocket company.
Musk celebrated an unexpected recovery Friday of the rocket’s first-stage booster, which faced especially hot temperatures on its return through the Earth’s atmosphere.
One of the hallmarks of the commercial rocket maker’s influence on space travel has been recovering its used equipment. SpaceX is building a fleet of quickly reusable, affordable rockets.
An hour before launch of the Bulgarian satellite on Friday, Musk indicated it would likely explode on reentry.
But it returned to the launchpad “extra toasty and hit the deck hard, but (is) otherwise good,” he tweeted later.
SpaceX achieved twice-monthly launches this year, and plans to make weekly launches in 2018, when it will begin launching crewed missions. Reusable equipment will allow SpaceX to drastically cut the costs of reaching outer space.
Friday’s first-stage rocket recovery was the company’s 12th, and on Sunday, the company hopes to bring back its 13th booster to a barge off the coast of San Diego.
Minutes after launch, the 16-story-tall booster will flip around after reaching the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will separate from the second stage that delivers the satellite to orbit.
Once separated, the booster will flip around and fly back to Earth, directed by internal and external commands, and guided down to land at sea on the specially constructed barge.
Titanium grid fins will guide the booster to its exact spot.
The barge, or “autonomous drone ship,” as SpaceX calls it, will then carry the 16-story-tall white booster to San Pedro’s outer harbor for recovery.
The rocket is loaded with 10 Iridium NEXT satellites built with new technology that allows them to independently coordinate one another in orbit, creating a mesh communications network that continuously covers every point on the globe’s surface.
Virginia-based Iridium is replacing its 20-year-old satellite network in a series of 10 launches that will last into next year. The technology will reach the market later this year.
“Two months ago, the first (20-year-old) Block-1 satellite was retired,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch said. “To replace it in orbit consists of a series of highly choreographed maneuvers. The amount of effort we’re putting into it is quite amazing.”
On January 14, the first shipment of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were launched from Vandenberg AFB.
After a successful orbital delivery, the booster returned to its waiting platform, and spent a week being retooled in San Pedro before heading back to the factory.