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SpaceX Falcon rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., January 14, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins


By Irene Klotz

(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 230-foot (70-meter) rocket launched from VandenbergAir Force Base at 9:54 a.m. PST (1754 GMT) to deliver 10satellites into orbit for Iridium Communications Inc <IRDM.O>.

"It's a clean sweep – 10 for 10," SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker said after the satellites were released.SpaceX founder and entrepreneur Elon Musk's ambitiousflight plans had been grounded since the Sept. 1 explosion during fueling ahead of a pre-flight test in Florida.

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

"Rocket is stable," Musk posted on Twitter. "Mission looks good."

Two other returning Falcon boosters landed on the ground.

The mission tested changes implemented by SpaceExploration Technologies Corp, known as SpaceX, since the launchpad explosion. Accident investigators determined that a canister of heliumburst inside the rocket's second-stage liquid oxygen tank,triggering the explosion. The canister is being redesigned, butuntil then SpaceX is addressing the issue by modifying itsfueling procedures.

The explosion destroyed a $62 million SpaceX booster and a $200 million Israeli communications satellite that it was to putinto 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 begins to clear a logjam of more than 70p lanned missions, worth more than $10 billion, involving 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 triplethe 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 isone of two companies hired by NASA to fly cargo to theInternational Space Station.

The company's 2017 agenda includes the debut launch of aheavy-lift booster, flying its first reused rocket and repairingthe Florida launchpad damaged in the explosion.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Tom Brown)

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