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VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (CBSMiami/AP) — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from California on Monday, lifting 10 new satellites for Iridium Communications Inc. into orbit.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 booster executed an automated return to Earth, landing with pinpoint precision on an off-shore droneship to chalk up SpaceX’s 17th successful recovery in 22 attempts.

But the landing was, as always, a secondary objective. The primary goal of the mission was to launch the third set of 10 Iridium NEXT spacecraft under contracts with the satellite telephone provider to deploy 75 of the 81 relay stations being built to replace the company’s current fleet of aging first-generation spacecraft.

Iridium’s customers rely on 66 satellites operating in six orbital planes to make and receive calls anywhere in the world. The company’s original block 1 satellites are being replaced by 66 Iridium NEXT spacecraft. Nine more will serve as in-orbit spares and another six will be held on the ground for launch as needed.

SpaceX launched the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg on Jan. 14. A second batch of 10 satellites was launched June 25. SpaceX plans to launch the fourth set in late November.

The old Iridium satellites are being deorbited.

With a successful launch Monday, SpaceX will turn its attention to preparing another Falcon 9, this one featuring a previously flown first stage, for launch from the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday evening to boost an SES/EchoStar communications satellite into orbit.

This week marks the second time this year SpaceX has attempted to launch two missions within three days.


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