SpaceX aims for December 16 return to flight, customer Iridium says

December 1, 2016 8:21 AM EST

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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - Tech billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX hopes to return its Falcon 9 rocket to flight on Dec. 16, said Iridium Communications Inc, which plans to have 10 of its satellites on board for launching.

The launch is contingent on approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees U.S. commercial space transportation, Iridium said on Thursday.

“We are looking forward to return to flight,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement from Iridium.

SpaceX suspended flights after one of its rockets burst into flames on Sept. 1 as it was being fueled for a routine prelaunch test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The company traced the explosion to a fueling system problem that caused a pressurized container of helium inside the rocket’s upper stage to burst.

The accident destroyed a $200 million satellite owned by Israel's Space Communication Ltd.

“We are confident that SpaceX understands its fueling process now and will do it successfully for our launch,” Iridium spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry wrote in an email to Reuters.

Iridium's satellites, however, will not be aboard the rocket during the prelaunch engine firing, she added.

SpaceX declined to comment about the status of its accident investigation or what measures it will take to ensure the problem will not reoccur.

The company uses extremely cold liquid propellants loaded just prior to blastoff to increase the rocket's power so it can fly back to Earth and be reused.

A U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration advisory panel last month publicly questioned the safety of SpaceX’s fueling process, especially since the company has been hired to begin flying astronauts to the International Space Station in 2018.

The Sept. 1 accident was the second for SpaceX in 29 flights of the Falcon 9. The company, owned and operated by Tesla Motors Inc Chief Executive Officer Musk, has a backlog of more than 70 missions for NASA and commercial customers, worth more than $10 billion.

SpaceX has not disclosed the extent of the damage at its primary launch site in Florida. The Iridium satellites will be launched from SpaceX’s California launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Iridium intends to replace its current mobile communications network with 81 new satellites made by Italy's Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture of Thales SA and Leonardo Finmeccanica SpA under a contract worth $2.3 billion.

SpaceX is under contract to launch at least 70 of the satellites.

(Story corrects contract value in second to last paragraph to $2.3 billion from $2.8 billion)

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)



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