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SpaceX mount a comeback with new rocket launch

SpaceX put its first rocket back into space on Saturday since a spectacular launch pad explosion halted operations more than four months ago at the private US space company founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force base on the southern California coast, taking 10 one-ton satellites into space for communications company Iridium.

Investigators were left scratching their heads for months over the cause of last September’s explosion. It occurred while the rocket was being fuelled and was originally attributed to a leak of oxygen from a pressure vessel inside the rocket. The company has still not been able to say with complete certainty what ignited the gas.

Mr Musk, head of both SpaceX and electric carmaker Tesla Motors, had pushed to start launches before the end of the year. But the delay in completing the investigation and then bad weather pushed back the launch until now.

Restarting launches will also reduce financial pressure on Mr Musk’s company, which has positioned itself as the lowest-cost supplier for companies and governments looking to put satellites and other payloads into space. Iridium has seven launches planned between now and early next year and has agreed to pay around $470m to SpaceX to get its new constellation of 70 satellites into low earth orbit, according to Matt Desch, the communications company’s chief executive officer.

Saturday’s launch also saw SpaceX bring the first stage of its rocket back and land it on a drone ship, the fifth time it has recovered a rocket since its first successful attempt last year. Reusing equipment plays a big part in the company’s efforts to hold down launch costs.

For Iridium, the successful launch marks the first step in replacing an ageing satellite network that was put into space in the 1990s. The company picked SpaceX around the time of its first launch, in 2010, when SpaceX was promising launch costs that were around half those charged by rivals, Mr Desch said.

Starting the replacement of the Iridium network has fallen behind its initial planned date nearly three years ago, though its original constellation of satellites has remained in operation far beyond the original 7-10 years it was designed to last.

The $3bn project is half the cost of putting the original Iridium constellation into space, a project that bankrupted the company. It comes as satellite communications companies worry about fresh financial pressures in the industry, with several new internet communications networks scheduled to be launched.

Iridium has tried to avoid the most competitive parts of the market, looking for higher value services than simply supplying extra capacity for internet communications. One new service planned for its Iridium Next network is the ability to track planes and ships in real time around the world.

“We aren’t in the business of providing the most amount of bandwidth for the least amount of money,” Mr Desch said.

Via FT