The private launch provider founded by eccentric billionaire Elon Musk just completed a very good year. SpaceX spectacularly capped 2017 in the night skies over California with the launch of Iridium-4 on a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster. The mission’s timing allowed an eerily lit-up trail behind the soaring rocket against perfectly clear skies which allowed onlookers to witness the separation of the second stage with their own eyes––a very rare thing. The internet went wild as west-coasters posted extraordinary photos and video of the launch. Many claiming to have witnessed a UFO. The launch caused quite a stir prompting the Los Angeles Mayor to tweet out that it was in-fact a SpaceX rocket lighting up the skies.
The company’s headquarters are located in Hawthorne, California but their west coast launch pad is at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Typically, the Falcon 9 booster would be recovered at sea by landing atop the ‘Just Read the Instructions’ autonomous drone ship parked in the Pacific Ocean. For Iridium-4, SpaceX’s final mission of 2017, they decided to dispose of the booster because they are simply making that version of the Falcon 9 redundant.
SpaceX’s final launch from Cape Canaveral in 2017 was one for the books: For the first time, NASA purchased a resupply mission to the International Space Station atop one of SpaceX’s flight-proven rockets. On top of that, the federal space agency would fly another load of cargo on a Dragon spacecraft that has already been launched, recovered, and refurbished. It was also the first time SpaceX launched two of their previously-flown vehicles at the same time. The CRS-13 mission for NASA was also the grand re-opening of Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The pad was destroyed in September 2016 when the Falcon 9 and an expensive customer payload exploded before its launch.
The booster was brought home yet again after CRS-13 for a touchdown at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral. It was a picture-perfect finish to a record-breaking year that primarily unfolded at Kennedy Space Center. Specifically, at Launch Complex 39A––where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin launched off to walk on the moon and where the space shuttle missions to assemble the International Space Station and place the Hubble telescope were launched. While SpaceX fired off its final Cape mission from Pad 40, it was also busy prepping Pad 39A for the demonstration flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX has already assembled the triple-booster rocket and has encapsulated Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster inside its payload fairing. The car is heading to a Mars elliptical orbit and if you don’t believe us check out this Instagram post from Elon Musk with photos of his Mars-bound ride.
SpaceX is expected to carry out a hold down test-fire of all 27 Merlin engines that power the Falcon Heavy this weekend with that launch coming within two weeks after that. If the launch itself is successful, the Falcon Heavy’s side boosters will be flown back to land on Landing Zone 1 and Landing Zone 2 at Cape Canaveral while the core booster is flown back to sea for a landing atop the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone ship. In preparation for the first flight of the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX has rolled out the vehicle for a fit test at Pad 39A. They posted photos like the one below on the company’s Flickr account.
Until then, SpaceX still has another leftover mission from 2017 that was pushed due to certain delays and issues with certain payload fairings. Codenamed ‘Zuma’, the secret payload was built by veteran aerospace manufacturers Northrop Grumman for a still-unknown branch of the military (or Government agency). We do know that it will launch from the rebuilt Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral on Friday, January 5th during a two-hour launch window that opens at 8 PM Eastern. The payload is going to low-Earth orbit. After the second stage separates, the Falcon 9 booster will come back for a landing on the ground.
You can watch the launch live here: spacex.com/webcast
Featured Image Credit: SpaceX