If tonight’s mission goes as planned, Elon Musk’s space company will once again set the record for most orbital rockets launched in a single year.
At 5:27 US Pacific Time (8:37 ET), a flight-proven Falcon 9’s rocket engines are expected to ignite, carrying 10 Iridium communications satellites into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The satellites, among 75 to be launched by SpaceX, will provide mobile communications around the globe.
You can watch the launch live on SpaceX’s webcast starting about 15 minutes before liftoff. (Fans of SpaceX’s remarkable rocket landings will be disappointed, since the booster in this flight will be discarded after it performs its mission.)
This will be the company’s 18th launch of the year, setting a new record for a private company. The previous record was set in 2009 when SpaceX’s competitor, United Launch Alliance, flew 16 missions; SpaceX bested that with its previous mission. SpaceX has also out-launched the nation of China this year, which flew 16 rockets, and almost matched Russia, which launched 20. There have been 28 launches from the United States this year, between SpaceX and its competitors ULA and Orbital ATK.
This will also be the fifth time the company has reused one of its Falcon 9 first stages, a key factor in its ability to drive down launch prices. No other company operates a partially reusable orbital rocket, though Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin plans to debut one, the New Glenn, in 2020.
SpaceX’s decision not to recover the booster used in this mission is surprising, given the company’s run of 16 straight successful landings. SpaceX sources say the decision isn’t linked to the mission profile but rather manufacturing pace: The company has already stockpiled plenty of flight-proven boosters in its current configuration.
More importantly, SpaceX plans to introduce the final version of its Falcon 9 rocket next year. Called “Block 5,” it has more resilient engines to safely fly astronauts and require less refurbishment between flights. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told Quartz in June that the company planned to build 24 first stages in 2017, and with enough on hand, will shift focus to producing more upper stages in 2018.
The next milestone for the company will occur in early January, when SpaceX expects to debut its Falcon Heavy rocket in a test launch from Cape Canaveral with a very silly cargo. That uncrewed rocket, effectively three Falcon 9 booster cores linked together, will be the most powerful to fly since the Saturn V that took astronauts to the moon. Should that launch succeed, it will be another major step forward for SpaceX. If it fails, it will be one hell of a show.