Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has received the green light for its next rocket launch, four months after a malfunction on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket turned the launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida into a pyrotechnics display when the rocket incinerated. In September of last year, SpaceX lost one of its rockets, loaded to carry a commercial SpaceCom Amos-6 satellite, during the pre-launch engine check.

Iridium Satellite Communications has contracted SpaceX to launch 70 of its “NEXT” satellites into orbit. It’s one of some $10 billion worth of backlogged contracts that SpaceX is struggling to keep up with.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) confirmed last Friday that SpaceX was clear for launch on Monday, January 9 — though that launch has since been postponed to January 14, due to poor weather this week at Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site in California.

FAA approval of the launch comes after the administration received and reviewed SpaceX’s investigation into the Falcon 9 rocket explosion that occurred in September of last year. During the routine pre-launch engine check, the rocket, along with its commercial satellite payload, erupted into flames on the launchpad, thankfully with no casualties. SpaceX’s investigation and subsequent report to authorities pointed to operational factors and a possible design flaw in its fueling tanks as the culprits of the explosion. The company claims a perfect storm of variables led to the explosion: the fuel tanks holding gaseous helium buckled, and super-chilled oxygen air pooled in the buckles between the lining and the composite carbon wrap that covers the tanks. SpaceX says that super cold oxygen likely caused enough friction to ignite, or resulted in carbon fibers breaking off and igniting the oxygen, which resulted in the explosion. SpaceX said it’ll redesign its tanks, and make adjustments to how it loads fuel for future operations in the short term.

SpaceX lead its own investigation into the explosion — raising eyebrows for obvious conflict-of-interest concerns — with the aid of the FAA, NASA, National Transportation Safety Board, and the US Air Force.  The investigation was spearheaded by SpaceX’s flight reliability head, Hans Koenigsmann.

It’s actually the second explosion investigation that SpaceX has been allowed to investigate itself. Back in June 2015, SpaceX led its own investigation, also headed by Koenigsmann, into the explosion of another Falcon 9 rocket that exploded in the air, about two minutes after take-off. With the help of NASA,  SpaceX delivered its report to the FAA in November of 2015, and by December the company had resumed flights.

SpaceX was hoping to receive the green light for launches by December 2016, but was ultimately unable to complete its investigation in time. Elon Musk, who serves as SpaceX’s chief technology officer (CTO), characterized the explosion as “the most difficult and complex failure” in the company’s history.

“We have remained confident in SpaceX’s ability as a launch partner throughout the Falcon 9 investigation,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer at Iridium, in a statement released in December 2016. “We are grateful for their transparency and hard work to plan for their return to flight.  We are looking forward to the inaugural launch of Iridium NEXT, and what will begin a new chapter in our history.”

Ahead of the intended Jan. 9 launch, SpaceX last week conducted the pre-launch test that involved fueling the rocket and test firing the nine main engines. That test was completed successfully, clearing the way for SpaceX’s return to space, if only the weather would cooperate.  “With completion of the static fire test, our first launch has just gotten that much closer,” said Desch, in a statement Friday. “The Iridium team has been anxiously awaiting launch day, and we’re now all the more excited to send those first ten Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.”

The SpaceX launch is slated for 9:54:34 am PST on January 14, with Jan 15 serving as a back-up launch day.

Kendra R Chamberlain
Editor and analyst at The Enterprise Orbit, covering new space business and technology developments; freelance journalist covering telecom, renewable energy technology & smart infrastructure.

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