With a picturesque backdrop of a sunny and mostly clear sky, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket late Thursday morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The launch went off as planned from VAFB’s Space Launch Complex-4 just after 11:51 a.m. While groups of spectators gathered for viewing parties at various spots around the Lompoc Valley, including along West Ocean Avenue, the rocket's rumble was both heard and felt throughout the area.
The rocket carried the Formosat-5 satellite into orbit for the Taiwanese National Space Organization (NSPO). The satellite is the first to be fully designed and manufactured in Taiwan.
"The 30th Space Wing takes great pride in supporting another successful SpaceX launch," said Col. Gregory E. Wood, 30th Space Wing vice commander and launch safety authority. "It is a sterling example of the wing's commitment to public safety and mission success on the Western Range."
About 10 minutes after the blastoff, SpaceX confirmed that it was able to successfully land the rocket’s booster on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean. The company began reusing its boosters this year — its first successful booster landing was in December 2015 — in an effort to cut down on launch costs.
The Earth-observing Formosat-5 satellite, which cost about $168 million to construct, is expected to complete a five-year mission in which it will collect a range of data that will be used for evaluation of natural disasters, national security, environmental monitoring, rescue operations and scientific research, according to the Taipei Times.
"The Falcon 9 launch of Formosat-5 was an incredible mission to be a part of," said Capt. Kylie Prachar, Air Force Launch Commander for the mission. "This was the first satellite manufactured and integrated entirely by Taiwan and it was also the fastest turnaround time between Falcon launches here at Space Launch Complex-4. Our Air Force team put in a lot of work to support the mission and provide fleet surveillance on behalf of the Space and Missile Systems Center."
The launch was also a milestone for SpaceX, which has now successfully launched 12 rockets this year. Thursday’s mission pushed SpaceX past Russia, which has 11, for the most orbital launches of any single entity.
The news wasn’t all good for SpaceX, however.
The Formosat-5 was initially scheduled to launch four years ago aboard a much smaller rocket at a cost of less than half of the estimated $62 million that it now costs for a commercial launch aboard a Falcon 9. The launch was delayed several times, though, and SpaceX ultimately phased out its lighter rockets.
Due to those circumstances, and the fact that the relatively light Formosat-5 satellite was the lone payload aboard the Falcon 9 on Thursday, SpaceX stands to lose about $14 million on the launch, according to investment firm Jefferies International, as first reported by Wired.com.
Some of that cost could be recouped for the company by reusing the booster.
The most recent previous launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from VAFB, before Thursday, occurred June 25. That launch carried 10 Iridium satellites into orbit.