SAN FRANCISCO • Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp returned to the skies on Saturday with a flawless delivery of communications satellites into orbit, its first flight since a Sept 1 fireball destroyed a rocket and its payload on a Florida launch pad.
A Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 Iridium Communications satellites rumbled aloft from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California's central coast shortly after 9.54am local time, amid clear skies and a majestic view of the Pacific Ocean.
The rocket's first stage touched down upright on an unmanned drone ship kilometres offshore about eight minutes later, a feat that SpaceX accomplished four times last year and captured on the company's webcast.
"Mission looks good. Started deploying the 10 Iridium satellites," said Mr Musk, who watched from the control room with Iridium's chief executive, in a Twitter post. "Rocket is stable on the droneship."
Mr Musk confirmed that all the satellites had deployed, marking completion of the company's mission. Saturday's flight was aimed at clearing a logjam of over 70 planned missions, worth more than US$10 billion (S$14.3 billion), involving Falcon rockets, SpaceX said.
The launch is the first in a seven-flight contract with Iridium worth US$468.1 million, spokesman Diane Hockenberry said.
SpaceX aims to launch 27 rockets this year, more than triple the eight flights the privately held firm managed last year, according to a report last Friday in the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, Japan's space agency said yesterday it failed to launch a mini rocket carrying a satellite into space because of failure of the communications systems.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) said in a statement that it had fired the SS-520 rocket at 8.33am yesterday at the Uchinoura Space Centre in southern Japan.
Jaxa said it was unable to receive data from the rocket, which has fallen back to earth in a spot it had expected. The rocket, about 10m long and 50cm in diameter, was carrying a 3kg, 35cm satellite to take images of the earth and gather other data.
The first stage of the rocket launch was carried out but not the second, after communication problems were discovered, Jaxa's spokesman said. The space agency had postponed the launch of the rocket on Jan 11 because of strong winds.