A new success for SpaceX with two launches in just over 48 hours

The first stage used to launch the BulgariaSat 1 satellite after its hard landing (Image SpaceX)
The first stage used to launch the BulgariaSat 1 satellite after its hard landing (Image SpaceX)

SpaceX has set a new record for a private company by launching two rockets in just over 48 hours. On Friday, from Cape Canaveral the BulgariaSat 1 communications satellite was launched, while on Sunday, from the Vandenberg base in California 10 satellites of the Iridium NEXT constellation were launched. In both cases the first stage successfully landed.

The Friday launch was the second carried out using a Falcon 9 rocket with a used first stage after the one at the end of March. Just over a year and a half after the first success in a controlled landing, this new phase of SpaceX launch program is starting to allow launches at costs that are lower than those on a fully new rocket.

For Bulgaria, it’s the first communications satellite and it’s no coincidence that it was launched on a rocket with a used first stage. For small nations, launch costs, combined with the costs of building a communications satellite, have so far been discouraging, but SpaceX has revolutionized the commercial launch market with the progress it has made in a few years.

The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage was used to launch the first 10 satellites of the Iridium NEXT constellation on January 14, 2017. That launch was carried out from the Vandenberg base and the first stage landed in the Pacific Ocean on the drone ship called “Just Read the Instructions”. Last Friday the first stage landed in the Atlantic Ocean on the platform “Of Course I Still Love You”.

On Friday the BulgariaSat 1 satellite had to be put into a trajectory that will bring it into a geostationary orbit. That pushed the Falcon 9 to its limits and in the past some attempted controlled landings after such launches had failed. Even in this case SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk wasn’t very optimistic but the first stage successfully landed.

This new success shows the progress of the controlled landing system. The emergency system that has the task of absorbing the impact energy at the time of landing was used to its limit because the maneuver had quite a hard end but the first stage remained intact.

On Sunday, SpaceX accomplished the Iridium 2 mission with the launch of the second group of 10 satellites of the Iridium NEXT constellation. For the occasion, the Falcon 9 rocket was equipped with new grid fins, part of the landing system, made of titanium to better resist friction and to be used in multiple missions.

The weather on the Pacific Ocean wasn’t very good and the drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” was moved from its initial position to look for a place where the sea wasn’t so rough. Despite the non-ideal conditions, the first stage landed smoothly while the second stage brought the satellites into orbit.

This was the ninth launch for SpaceX in the first six months of 2017, another record for SpaceX. For Elon Musk’s company it was a great weekend with success in satellite launches and in landing the two first stages. It will take some time to check these two first stages to see if they can be reused but slowly the procedure is improving to speed up the reuse and the decrease of launch costs.

The start of the Iridium 2 mission (Photo SpaceX)
The start of the Iridium 2 mission (Photo SpaceX)

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