SpaceX launches five Iridium satellites and twin science spacecraft

Falcon 9 on the launchpad

"The GRACE-FO satellites will be deployed approximately eleven minutes and thirty seconds after launch, followed by the deployment of five Iridium NEXT satellites beginning about an hour after launch", SpaceX says, making it sound oh so easy. Sensors on the spacecraft will be able to collect Global Positioning System radio occultation data for atmospheric sounding, similar to that provided by the U.S. -Taiwan COSMIC constellation and commercial satellites operated by Spire.

NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission and five Iridium Next communications satellites will lift off on a used Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 3:47 p.m. EDT (12:47 p.m. PDT, 1947 GMT).

GRACE satellites (including these two new satellites) fly in uniform pairs so that scientists can have a better read on how much mass is below the flight path.

The Block 5, the latest version of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, had its first successful launch earlier this month when it was used to carry Bangladesh's first geostationary communications satellite toward orbit.

Liftoff is scheduled for 12:47 PM Pacific Time, so SpaceX's live stream should fire up about 15 minutes ahead of that; NASA will also have its own updates, since it has skin in the game.

"Water is critical to every aspect of life on Earth - for health, for agriculture, for maintaining our way of living", said Michael Watkins, GRACE-FO science lead and director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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The McLean, Virginia, company now has 55 Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit. Billing it as one of the largest tech upgrades in history, CEO Matt Desch told investors last month that the majority of his network's traffic is now running on the 50 new satellites SpaceX has launched since January 2017.

Data collected by the mission, a joint effort between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, can help scientists measure the distribution of mass across planet Earth. It is a successor to the original GRACE mission, also a U.S.

GRACE-FO similarly consists of twin satellites, orbiting 220km (137 miles) apart at an altitude of 490km (304 miles).

For the past several years, SpaceX has been developing the use of recycled rockets in order to cut launch costs and speed up flights.

These variations in distance will be constantly recorded by the spacecraft, because each shift signals a change in mass on the planet underneath. "That is about one-tenth of a human hair over the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego", Frank Flechtner, GRACE-FO's project manager at GFZ in Potsdam, Germany, said at the news conference.