SpaceX launches ride-sharing satellites, rocket fairings miss the boat

Falcon 9 launching twin NASA satellites, Iridium NEXT communication satellite

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

NASA's GRACE Follow-On spacecraft launched onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

SpaceX launched more than a half-dozen satellites on its Falcon 9 rocket from California Tuesday afternoon. After launch, the company didn't recover the previously flown first-stage booster, but SpaceX did attempt to try and catch the rocket’s nose cone on a boat called Mr. Steven.

Falcon 9 launched five Iridium NEXT communication satellites along with twin NASA’s GRACE mission satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base Tuesday at 3:47 p.m. ET (12:47 p.m. PT).

GRACE, which stands for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, will track the movement of water on Earth from space and measure all the forms of water under the Earth’s surface. NASA is sending up replacement satellites to continue the mission, which began 15 years ago.

The previous twin GRACE missions satellites operated until October 2017.

Just last week, NASA published a study using 14 years of GRACE data that shows Earth’s wetland areas are getting wetter and dry areas are getting drier due to factors including human water management and climate change, according to the study.

"This is the first time that we’ve used observations from multiple satellites in a thorough assessment of how freshwater availability is changing, everywhere on Earth," said Matt Rodell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "A key goal was to distinguish shifts in terrestrial water storage caused by natural variability – wet periods and dry periods associated with El Niño and La Niña, for example – from trends related to climate change or human impacts, like pumping groundwater out of an aquifer faster than it is replenished."

The twin GRACE satellites successfully deployed about 11 minutes after liftoff and the Iridium communication spacecraft followed 30 minutes later. Both clients were communicating with their spacecraft Tuesday soon after they had separated from the Falcon 9.

The Block 4 booster used during Tuesday launch previously launched the top-secret Zuma mission for the U.S. government in January. 

SpaceX premiered its new, highly reusable Block 5 configuration from Kennedy Space Center earlier this month. The new Block 5 boosters can fly up to 10 times without major refurbishment.

[READ: 3 ways new 'Block 5' Falcon 9 helps SpaceX launch faster, more often]

SpaceX didn't attempt to land the rocket booster again as it phases out the Block 4s, but did attempt to catch the fairings that make up the rocket’s nose cone aboard Mr. Steven with giant catcher nets.

The SpaceX launch announcer said the fairings just missed Mr. Steven on Tuesday.

Rocket fairings cost $6 million and are part of CEO Elon Musk's plan to bring down the cost of launching.

SpaceX has softly landed fairings in the sea, but has yet been able to catch them with the boat, reports NASASpaceFlight.com.

SpaceX will attempt to catch Falcon 9's fairings on Mr. Steven as they fall back from space at about eight times the speed of sound, CEO Elon Musk said. (Photo: SpaceX/Elon Musk)

In February, Musk shared a photo of Mr. Steven ahead of the first attempt to recover the fairings from the West Coast.

"Going to try to catch the giant fairing (nose cone) of Falcon 9 as it falls back from space at about eight times the speed of sound," Musk wrote.

The CEO said the fairings have onboard thrusters and guidance systems to bring the hardware through Earth's atmosphere intact.

Ahead of landing, the fairing "releases a parafoil and our ship, named Mr. Steven, with basically a giant catcher’s mitt welded on, tries to catch it," Musk said.

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