Jan 14 (Reuters) - SpaceX plans to blast off a rocket on Saturday for the first time since a launch pad explosion in the fall sidetracked the ambitious flight plans of company founder and entrepreneur Elon Musk.
A 20-story tall Falcon 9 rocket is slated to launch from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:54 a.m. PST (1754 GMT) to put into orbit 10 satellites for Iridium Communications Inc, which will use them to enhance mobile voice and data relay capabilities.
The mission will test changes implemented by Space Exploration Technologies Corp, known as SpaceX, after another Falcon 9 exploded on a launch pad in Florida in September during a routine preflight test.
Accident investigators determined that a canister of helium burst inside the rocket’s second-stage liquid oxygen tank, triggering the explosion. The canister is being redesigned, but until then SpaceX is addressing the issue by modifying its fueling procedures.
The explosion destroyed a $62 million SpaceX booster and a $200 million Israeli communications satellite that it was to put into orbit two days later.
The accident clouded the company’s aggressive agenda, which includes beginning to ferry U.S. astronauts into space next year, when it also plans to make its first voyage to Mars.
Saturday’s flight would begin to clear a logjam of more than 70 missions, worth more than $10 billion, awaiting flights on SpaceX Falcon rockets, which last flew in August, SpaceX said.
The launch is the first in a seven-flight contract with Iridium worth $468.1 million, company spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry said.
The rocket flying on Saturday will attempt to touch down on a platform in the Pacific Ocean, a feat previously accomplished by four other returning Falcon rockets. SpaceX intends to reuse its rockets, slashing launch costs so it can offer cut-rate services.
SpaceX aims to launch 27 rockets in 2017, more than triple the eight flights the privately held firm managed in 2016, according to a report on Friday in the Wall Street Journal.
In addition to its dozens of commercial customers, SpaceX is one of two companies hired by NASA to fly cargo to the International Space Station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
The company’s 2017 agenda includes the debut launch of a heavy-lift booster, flying its first reused rocket and repairing the Florida launch pad damaged in the explosion. (Editing by Letitia Stein and Lisa Shumaker)