SpaceX Aims for a Return to Flight on Sunday

By Daniel Sparks Markets Fool.com

About four months after its Falcon 9 exploded on the launch pad, the Elon Musk-led SpaceX rocket company is finally aiming for a return to flight on Sunday, Jan. 8. The Falcon 9 will carry 10 Iridium (NASDAQ: IRDM) satellites, designed and manufactured with the help of Thales Alenia Space and Orbital ATK. The launch is of critical importance for SpaceX as the company aims to develop a reputation for reliability, rapid launches, and reusability.

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 payload of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites have been stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing, Iridium tweeted on Dec. 29. Image source: Iridium.

A return to flight

In a Jan. 2 update on its website, SpaceX notes it's planning to launch the 10 Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex 4E. The flight will take place at approximately 10:28 a.m. EST, Iridium CEO Matt Desch tweeted Monday.

Iridium's 10 satellites are just the first of 81 spacecraft Iridium plans to deploy as part of an unprecedented replacement of an existing satellite constellation. Iridium plans to launch at least 70 of its 81 Iridium NEXT satellites on SpaceX launches.

SpaceX had previously targeted a return to flight in December, but the investigation into SpaceX's anomaly dragged on and delayed this launch further. But SpaceX's planned launch on Jan. 8 is more likely to take place now that the investigation team has identified several causes for the failure and has issued corrective actions.

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Investigators concluded the anomaly was due to the failure of a high-pressure helium tank inside the second-stage liquid oxygen tank.

"Specifically, the investigation team concluded the failure was likely due to the accumulation of oxygen between the COPV liner and overwrap in a void or a buckle in the liner," SpaceX said, "leading to ignition and the subsequent failure of the [high-pressure helium tank]."

SpaceX's launch pad explosion was a major setback for the company. Not only did the explosion delay the company's launch plans, but it destroyed both the rocket and a $200 million payload.

Falcon 9. Image source: SpaceX.

A return to flight is good news for Iridium. A statement from the wireless mobile and data communications network company suggests it is pleased with the target launch date.

"Iridium is pleased with SpaceX's announcement and targeted launch date of January 8 for the first #IridiumNEXT launch," the company tweeted on Jan. 2.

Setting the tone for 2017

Before its launch pad anomaly in September, SpaceX's track record was shaping up nicely. The company had successfully delivered eight payloads in a row and boasted six successful experimental rocket landings in 2016 alone. Now SpaceX will need to regain momentum, particularly in light of some of the big milestones the company is aiming to hit in 2017 and 2018.

Rendering of Falcon Heavy. Image source: SpaceX.

In 2017, SpaceX is aiming to launch its Falcon Heavy for the first time. Essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together (all which are capable of returning to earth and landing), Falcon Heavy is set to be the world's most powerful rocket in operation.

In 2018, SpaceX is scheduled to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of a NASA contract.

SpaceX's planned Jan. 8 return to flight, which is also the space company's first flight of the year, will help set the tone for the company in 2017. If SpaceX can rebound from its four-month hiatus with a successful launch, it can begin moving closer to making its ambitious plans for launching Falcon Heavy and transporting astronauts to space a reality.

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Daniel Sparks has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Iridium Communications and Orbital ATK. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.