Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. kicked off its first launch in what promises to be a busy 2019, blasting a rocket carrying satellites for longtime customer Iridium Communications Inc. into orbit.
The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off Friday at 7:31 a.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s central coast, carrying 10 Iridium NEXT satellites. SpaceX began releasing them into orbit about an hour later at an altitude of roughly 390 miles and completed deployment within 15 minutes. They are the last of 75 that replace Iridium’s existing commercial communication satellite network. SpaceX landed the rocket’s first stage on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean.
Each satellite in the new Iridium network carries equipment for Aireon LLC, which says its space-based service will provide uninterrupted airline flight coverage globally. Virginia-based Aireon, which is owned by a consortium that includes Iridium and several air-traffic-control services, plans to begin operational trials this spring for North Atlantic flights.
SpaceX and Boeing Co. have contracts with NASA to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station under the Commercial Crew program, but the timeline for the first flights has slipped repeatedly. The agency says SpaceX’s first uncrewed demonstration flight, known as Demo-1, will happen “no earlier than February.”
Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX set a company record last year with 21 launches for customers including commercial satellite operators, NASA and the U.S. military. But much of the focus this year will be the race to see who is first to put humans into space and safely bring them back. SpaceX, Boeing, Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin all see space tourism as a huge business opportunity.
SpaceX’s valuation has climbed as it has racked up successful missions, making it the third-most valuable venture-backed startup in the U.S., after Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc. SpaceX has sold $273 million in equity to eight investors as part of a $500 million investment, according to a Jan. 3 securities filing by the company.