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SpaceX pushes boundaries of fairing recovery with breathtaking sunrise launch [photos]

SpaceX has soared past the halfway point of completion for Iridium’s next-generation NEXT constellation with the successful launch of satellites 41-50 earlier this morning. SpaceX has three additional launches contracted with Iridium for a total of eight. Despite intentionally ditching the flight-proven first stage booster in the Pacific Ocean, SpaceX attempted to recover one half of the payload fairing; an effort acknowledged to be predominately experimental at this point.

Iridium-5 continues a recent trend of monthly launches out of SpaceX’s Vandenberg Air Force Base launch facilities – the company’s SLC-4E pad is known to take a bit longer than its East coast brethren for refurbishment and repairs between launches, typically maxing out approximately one launch per month. This launch also marks another flight-proven booster intentionally expended, likely in part because the West Coast drone ship Just Read The Instructions is currently out of commission, awaiting the delivery of critical subsystems stripped to repair the Eastern OCISLY.

As of posting, all 10 Iridium NEXT satellites have been successfully deployed into low Earth orbit, marking the successful completion of this mission. On the recovery side of the mission, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had initially teased Mr Steven’s upcoming fairing catch attempt – his silence since providing a T-0 around 7:44 am PST presumably speaks to the experimental nature of these fairing recovery efforts, and hints that this attempt may not have been successful.

A couple hours after launch, Musk took to Twitter to confirm that this fairing recovery effort had failed, largely due to the complexity of safely parafoiling such a large, fast, and ungainly object. “[Helicopter] drop tests” are planned for coming weeks in order to put to bed the problems ailing fairing recovery. As SpaceX announcer and materials engineer Michael Hammersley noted, “the ultimate goal is full recovery and reuse of the entire vehicle,” and experimental fairing recovery efforts push SpaceX one step closer to that ambition.

Space (regulation) oddity

Perhaps the most unusual feature of this launch was an announcement soon after the webcast began that NOAA (the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) apparently restricted SpaceX’s ability to provide live coverage of Falcon 9’s upper stage once in orbit, and the webcast thus ended moments after the second stage Merlin Vacuum engine shut off. By all appearances, this is fairly unprecedented: NOAA is tasked with “licensing…operations of private space-based remote sensing systems” with their Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) branch, but they’ve been quite inept and heavy-handed in their implementation of Earth imaging regulation. Nominally, the purpose of that regulation is to protect sensitive US security facilities and activities from the unblinking eyes of private, orbital imaging satellites, but NOAA has quite transparently exploited its power in ways that create extreme uncertainty and near-insurmountable barriers to entry for prospective commercial Earth-imaging enterprises.

Presumably, this protects their (and their prime contractors’) vested interest in NOAA’s continuing quasi-monopoly over Earth sciences and weather-related satellite production and operations, a segment of the agency’s budget known to aggressively devour as much of NOAA’s budget as practicable. In this sense, something as arbitrary as preventing a launch provider like SpaceX from showing live, low-resolution (functionally useless) video feeds from orbit would be thoroughly disappointing, but in no way surprising. In this case, the restriction is comically transparent in its blatant inconsistency: SpaceX has flown more than 50 launches over more than a decade, all of which featured some form of live coverage of the upper stage once in orbit, and none of which NOAA objected to. Fingers crossed that this absurd restriction can be lifted sooner than later.

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SpaceX pushes boundaries of fairing recovery with breathtaking sunrise launch [photos]
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