SpaceX launches first rocket since explosion, returns stage to earth

Jan 14 (Reuters) - A SpaceX Falcon rocket blasted off from California on Saturday, returning the company to flight for the first time since a fiery launchpad explosion in September.

The launch of the 230-foot (70-meter) rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:54 a.m. PST (1754 GMT) aimed to deliver 10 satellites into orbit for Iridium Communications Inc.

SpaceX's founder and entrepreneur Elon Musk's ambitious flight plans had been grounded since the Sept. 1 explosion during fueling ahead of a pre-flight test in Florida.

SEE ALSO: Elon Musk presents transportation plans for colonizing Mars

About 10 minutes after Saturday's launch, the first stage of the rocket, which had separated from the rest of craft, successfully touched down on a platform in the Pacific Ocean, a feat previously accomplished by four other returning Falcon rockets. SpaceX intends to reuse its rockets to cut costs.

The mission will test changes implemented by Space Exploration Technologies Corp, known as SpaceX, since the launchpad explosion.

RELATED: SpaceX Dragon passenger spaceship

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The SpaceX Pad Abort Vehicle was manufactured at the company's Hawthorne, California, headquarters before being shipped to Florida for the pad abort test at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft is equipped with four quads each containing two SuperDraco engines for a total of eight thrusters that will be fired during the test to evaluate the capability of the launch abort system.

(Photo via SpaceX)

At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is being prepared for a test to simulate an emergency abort from the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 40. The ability to escape from a launch or pad emergency and safely carry the crew out of harm's way is a crucial element for NASA's next generation of crew spacecraft. SpaceX will perform the test under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA, and will use the data gathered during the development flight as it continues on the path to certification.

(Photo via NASA)

Eight SuperDraco engines boost a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft away from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in an emergency pad abort simulation. Each of the eight SuperDraco engine generates 15,000 pounds of thrust and burns about six seconds. The test began at 9 a.m. After the engines shut down, the Dragon spacecraft's trunk, with passive fins for stability, will separate when it reaches peak altitude.

(Photo via NASA)

Eight SuperDraco engines boost a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft away from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in an emergency pad abort simulation. Each of the eight SuperDraco engine generates 15,000 pounds of thrust and burns about six seconds. The test began at 9 a.m. After the engines shut down, the Dragon spacecraft's trunk, with passive fins for stability, will separate when it reaches peak altitude.

(Photo via NASA)

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft descends into the Atlantic Ocean under a parachute following a simulated emergency at the launch pad. SpaceX is placing the Crew Dragon through a worst-case scenario abort tests in order to reduce risk and refine the design.

(Photo via NASA)

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft descends into the Atlantic Ocean under a parachute following a simulated emergency at the launch pad. SpaceX is placing the Crew Dragon through a worst-case scenario abort tests in order to reduce risk and refine the design.

(Photo via NASA)

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft descends into the Atlantic Ocean under a parachute following a simulated emergency at the launch pad. SpaceX is placing the Crew Dragon through a worst-case scenario abort tests in order to reduce risk and refine the design.

(Photo via NASA)

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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.

SEE ALSO: Elon Musk's net worth fell by $779 million the same day his rocket blew up

Saturday's flight begins 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.

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.

RELATED: SpaceX aims to take passengers to new heights

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 launchpad damaged in the explosion.

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