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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Launches Final Batch of Next-Generation Satellites

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SpaceX completed a major upgrade to a key telecommunications satellite network on Friday after two years of launches.

A Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk’s space venture launched the final ten satellites of a 75-piece constellation for Iridium (IRDM), a satellite operator, just after 7:30 am from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The second-generation satellite network, dubbed Iridium NEXT, aims to offer improved satellite-based internet and phone services.

Separately, SpaceX once again recovered its booster during Friday’s mission. SpaceX pioneered the maneuver of guiding first-stage rocket boosters back to Earth so they can be reused and reduce launch costs.

It was the first rocket landing for SpaceX since a December 6 mishap in which the booster experienced a technical issue, tipped off a sea-faring platform, and dove into the ocean. The failed landing attempt was the first for a Falcon 9 booster since 2016.

Friday’s launch concluded a decade-long partnership between SpaceX and Iridium, a key customer.

Iridium selected SpaceX in March 2010 to be the sole launch partner for the Iridium NEXT. The companies signed a contract, worth $448 million, for seven launches. An eighth launch, for which SpaceX was paid $61.9 million, was added later.

SpaceX launched the first group of Iridium NEXT satellites on January 14, 2017, and has delivered a batch of Iridium satellites into orbit every few months since then.

The $3 billion Iridium NEXT network — which offers voice and data services as well as tracks marine and air traffic — will replace the aging constellation and promises quicker connections.

CEO Matt Desch told reporters this week that the 65 next-generation satellites already in orbit are “happy and healthy,” according to Spaceflight Now.

Iridium made its first global communications network with the launch of a $5 billion satellite constellation a couple decades ago. But the service, which was initially intended to bring satellite phones to the mass market, proved too expensive for the average consumer. Iridum declared bankruptcy in 1999.

But the company emerged from Chapter 11 with new owners and a revamped its business plan. Satellite phone coverage remains a key form of communication for disaster zones and Earth’s most remote corners.

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