SpaceX could be returning its Falcon 9 rocket to flight as early as December 19 according to one of its clients Iridium Communications Inc.
Falcon 9’s last flight on September 1 ended up in flames after one of the rockets burst while it was being fueled for a routine prelaunch test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The reason as stated by SpaceX was a problem with the fueling system that caused a pressurized container of helium inside the rocket’s upper stage to burst. The accident destroyed a $200 million satellite owned by Israel’s Space Communication Ltd.
The launch on December 19 is pending approval from Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees US commercial space transportation, and if approved Iridium Communications will see 10 of its satellites placed into orbit.
“We are looking forward to return to flight,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement from Iridium.
Iridium spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry said that they are confident that SpaceX now understands the fueling process and that there will be a successful launch. Iridium’s satellites, however, will not be aboard the rocket during the prelaunch engine firing, she added.
SpaceX has not commented on the status of its accident investigation or what measures it will take to ensure the problem will not reoccur. The company uses extremely cold liquid propellants loaded just prior to blastoff to increase the rocket’s power so it can fly back to Earth and be reused.
A US National Aeronautics and Space Administration advisory panel last month publicly questioned the safety of SpaceX’s fueling process, especially since the company has been hired to begin flying astronauts to the International Space Station in 2018. SpaceX has not disclosed the extent of the damage at its primary launch site in Florida.
The September 1 accident was the second for SpaceX in 29 flights of the Falcon 9. The company, owned and operated by Tesla Motors Inc Chief Executive Officer Musk, has a backlog of more than 70 missions for NASA and commercial customers, worth more than $10 billion.
The Iridium satellites will be launched from SpaceX’s California launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Iridium intends to replace its current mobile communications network with 81 new satellites made by Italy’s Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture of Thales SA and Leonardo Finmeccanica SpA under a contract worth $2.3 billion.