SpaceX launches communications, research satellites from Vandenberg AFB

Hawthorne-based SpaceX successfully launched a rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base Tuesday and deployed five communications satellites and a pair of science-research orbiters.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off without a hitch at 12:47 p.m. from the base near Lompoc.

The rocket carried five more satellites that are part of Iridium's in- development $3 billion system that will ultimately include 75 satellites bolstering a worldwide voice and data communication network. The launch was the sixth by SpaceX carrying Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit. SpaceX is planning at least two more launches to complete the Iridium array.

The rocket was also carrying a pair of research satellites as part of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, or GRACE-FO, mission. The project, a joint effort of NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences, is an effort to observe the movement of water and other mass around the planet by precisely tracking the changing pull of gravity.

Following the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket, the GRACE-FO satellites were deployed first, followed by the Iridium satellites, which were placed in a higher orbit.

Although SpaceX has made a habit of recovering the first stage of its Falcon 9 rockets for re-use in future missions, it did not attempt such a recovery following Tuesday's launch. The first stage that was used in the launch had been previously used in January for a re-supply mission to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has never used one of its Falcon 9 rocket stages more than twice. Earlier this month, the company conducted the first launch of an upgraded version of the rocket, dubbed the Falcon 9 Block 5, which is designed to be used in as many as 10 missions.

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