Before SpaceX can return to flight, after an explosion that destroyed one of its rockets in September, it must get Federal Aviation Administration approval.
LOS ANGELES — SpaceX could return to flight in about two weeks, pending Federal Aviation Administration approval, after an explosion that destroyed one of its rockets, satellite-launch customer Iridium Communications said Thursday.
The tentative date comes three months after one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, destroying a commercial communications satellite that was to be managed by Israeli satellite-operator Spacecom.
The fiery failure caused delays in SpaceX’s launch schedule and led to criticism from some in Congress of the company’s role in leading the investigation.
SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk has described the cause of the explosion as something that has “never been encountered before in the history of rocketry.”
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Iridium, a McLean, Va., satellite-communications company, said 10 of its satellites could launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 16 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Iridium said it expected to be SpaceX’s first launch customer since the explosion.
“We have remained confident in SpaceX’s ability as a launch partner throughout the Falcon 9 investigation,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch said in a statement. “We are grateful for their transparency and hard work to plan for their return to flight.”
Under federal law, SpaceX is allowed to conduct its own investigation with FAA oversight. SpaceX’s accident-investigation team for this incident includes NASA, the Air Force and other industry experts.
Before a launch operator can return to flight after a mishap, the FAA must approve that the recommended fix addresses the cause of the problem. It also must give approval of the launch, which is standard for all launches that occur.
In September, 10 Republican members of Congress sent a letter to the heads of the Air Force, NASA and the FAA questioning whether SpaceX should be allowed to lead its own investigation into the explosion. Many of the congressmen who signed the letter represent states where SpaceX competitor United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — has operations.
In the Iridium statement, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the Los Angeles-area company, whose full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is “looking forward to return to flight” with the Iridium launch.
Musk said last month the company could start launching again in mid-December.
In an interview on CNBC, Musk said SpaceX thought it had “gotten to the bottom of the problem.”
An investigation into the explosion is still ongoing, though the company has narrowed its focus to one of three composite-overwrapped pressure vessels that hold helium in the rocket’s second-stage liquid oxygen tank.
In October, SpaceX said it could re-create a failure in the vessel “entirely through helium loading conditions,” suggesting this could be a cause of the explosion.
Unmanned craft breaks up on way to space station
MOSCOW — An unmanned Russian cargo spaceship heading to the International Space Station broke up in the atmosphere over Siberia on Thursday due to an unspecified malfunction, the Russian space agency said.
The Progress MS-04 cargo craft broke up at an altitude of 118 miles over the remote Russian Tuva region in Siberia that borders Mongolia, Roscosmos said in a statement. It said most of the spaceship’s debris burned up as it entered the atmosphere but some fell to Earth over what it called an uninhabited area.
The Progress cargo ship was to deliver 2.5 metric tons of fuel, water, food and other supplies. It was set to dock with the space station on Saturday.
Roscosmos said the craft was operating normally before it stopped transmitting data 6 ½ minutes after the launch. The Russian space agency would not immediately describe the malfunction, saying its experts were looking into it.
This is the third botched launch of a Russian spacecraft in two years. A Progress cargo ship plunged into the Pacific Ocean in May 2015, and a Proton-M rocket carrying an advanced satellite broke up in the atmosphere in May 2014.
But both Roscosmos and NASA said the crash of the ship would have no impact on the operations of the orbiting space lab that is currently home to a six-member crew, including three cosmonauts from Russia, two NASA astronauts and one from the European Union.
Orbital ATK, NASA’s other shipper, successfully sent up supplies to the space station in October, and a Japanese cargo spaceship is scheduled to launch a full load in mid-December.
NASA supplier SpaceX, meanwhile, has been grounded since a rocket explosion in September.