SpaceX launches, releases NASA's GRACE-FO, Iridium Next satellites

SpaceX launches, releases NASA's GRACE-FO, Iridium Next satellites

SpaceX launches, releases NASA's GRACE-FO, Iridium Next satellites

Those satellites were successfully launched about 10 minutes after launch, according to SpaceX.

SpaceX did not attempt to recover the Falcon 9's first stage. The launch will pose a special challenge for SpaceX as it requires the two payloads to be delivered at different altitudes, with NASA's hardware being deployed at around 300 miles and the Iridium NEXT satellites at almost 500 miles.

SpaceX will launch two new Earth-observing satellites for NASA and five commercial communications satellites today (May 22) in a sort of carpool mission to space.

SpaceX is getting a lot of mileage out of its used rockets.

And while the rocket was blameless in the loss of ZUMA, the previously flown first stage will not make another flight.

The twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow On (GRACE-FO) satellites separated from the rocket's upper stage approximately 11 minutes later.

The U.S. Air Force has delayed the launch of its first Global Positioning System III satellite from this month to October at the earliest as it reviews the upgraded rocket that Elon Musk's SpaceX plans to use to boost it into orbit. Once in orbit, they'll be used to analyze Earth's water and ice content by detecting small changes in the planet's gravitation field.

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The McLean, Virginia, company now has 55 Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit.

When water or ice fills an area - such as a coastline or river basin - the liquid slightly increases that area's mass. Objects with more mass have a stronger gravitational pull, so measuring these variations in gravity gives NASA data on phenomena like sea-level rise, glacial retreat, drought, and changes in the size of underground aquifers.

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

"GRACE was really a revolutionary mission for us understanding the water cycle and how the climate behaves", said Frank Webb, GRACE-FO project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during a pre-launch briefing May 21.

Once the Earth-facing satellite has put a safe distance between itself and its sibling, it will thrust back up into a higher orbit, so that one follows the other on the same trajectory.

NASA has spent $430 million on the mission, and Germany has spent about $91 million.

SpaceX, and an earlier model of the Falcon, were certified in May 2015 for military missions, and it won the Air Force's first competitive launch a year later when the United Launch Alliance of Boeing Co. and Lockheed, which long held exclusive rights to military missions, declined to bid on the GPS III launches.

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