Iridium Communications Inc. said it anticipates the first batch of its next-generation satellites,
initially slated to be deployed a year ago and then delayed again in September, will be launched in mid-December by Elon
Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
The Northern Virginia satellite operator issued a news release indicating current plans call for 10 satellites to
lift off Dec.16 on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from Northern California, pending approval of a launch license by the
Federal Aviation Administration.
The mission has been in limbo since SpaceX, as the rocket company is called, suffered a catastrophic explosion of a
booster during ground testing in September. As a result, SpaceX halted all flights and led an investigation that has
tentatively concluded that problematic fueling practices most likely caused the accident.
But the timing and tone of Thursday's announcement strongly suggests that SpaceX and federal authorities have agreed
on a path and a timetable aimed at making the Dec. 16 launch happen. Most important, the anticipated timing will require
FAA officials, along with those from NASA and the Pentagon, to concur with a draft investigative report and a final
version of the document within the next week.
Federal authorities, who have been participating in the SpaceX-led probe from the beginning, also must concur on
remedial actions to protect against another accident.
To meet the projected Dec. 16 blastoff date from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the FAA needs to publicly
issue a 10-day advance notice warning pilots that airspace around the launch facility will be closed to aircraft
SpaceX has repeatedly said it was aiming to resume launches before end of the year, but hadn't mentioned a specific
Matt Desch, Iridium's chief executive, said, "We have remained confident in SpaceX's ability as a
launch partner," adding, "we are grateful for their transparency and hard work to plan for their return to flight."
There are huge stakes for both SpaceX and Iridium. Mr. Musk's company, which has a roughly a $10 billion backlog of
launch contracts, seeks to show commercial and U.S. government customers it can bounce back and speed up its launch
tempo. Iridium seeks to allay investor concerns about the fate of its multibillion-dollar constellation of replacement,
low-Earth orbit satellites.
Iridium, which supplies voice and data services world-wide, is relying on an aging satellite fleet operating without
adequate in-orbit spares. By early 2018, the company expects six additional Falcon 9 launches carrying 60 more of its
Airlines and air-traffic control organizations also are closely monitoring the launch schedule because Iridium's new
satellite fleet includes navigation and tracking technology designed to help track aircraft in regions lacking ground-
based radar coverage.
Announcing a specific date also could make it more complicated for FAA officials to ask for more time to take action,
or to delay formally concurring with the investigative report's findings..
In the wake of a SpaceX accident in 2015 that destroyed an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket about two minutes after launch,
the FAA played a similar supportive role throughout the probe. But in the end, according to NASA's inspector general,
the single FAA representative on that official 12-member panel didn't sign the final accident investigation report.
All of the 11 other voting members of that panel were SpaceX employees, with nonvoting observers from the U.S. Air
Force, the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The latest
investigative panel has relied on a similar structure, according to people familiar with the details.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com
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