Last night, SpaceX successfully launched and landed its Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida. This was the first rocket launch for SpaceX since the Falcon 9 rocket exploded after its launch earlier this summer. The rebuilt rocket deployed 11 satellites to low-Earth orbit for ORBCOMM, and then landed upright on solid ground, using its engines to slow its descent and touch down gently on a landing pad that NASA has used for decades. Because of failures during previous attempts, the tension and excitement were thick at the launch site as the rocket approached the landing site. When it touched down gracefully in a cloud of fire, perfectly upright, the roaring cheers of the spectators were the only sound for several minutes, and rightly so.
SpaceX has been in the race toward the first successful rocket landing for some time, a race it lost just weeks ago to Blue Origin, the civilian space company run by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Although Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket was the first civilian-backed craft to successfully land intact, that rocket traveled to a lower altitude than the Falcon 9, making it an easier trip. Falcon 9’s accomplishment is arguably more significant, though, because it was successfully recovered after traveling farther and faster than any other rocket in history. Landing a first-stage rocket means the craft can be reused for future launches. The push for reusable rockets translates into enormous cost savings, which could have a profound and positive impact on the future of space travel.
ORBCOMM satellites provide global communications services used to remotely track for truck-based transportation of goods, including monitoring the climate conditions inside the cargo area. The 11 satellites launched via Falcon 9 yesterday join an existing 31 already in orbit, including six that Falcon 9 launched in 2014.
This was the first launch for the rocket since the failed attempt in June. During that attempt, the Falcon 9 rocket launched successfully but exploded less than three minutes later. It was later found that a faulty metal strut caused what Musk called “a really odd failure mode.” Two previous attempts – in January and April of this year – ended poorly when the rocket wasn’t able to get into the correct angle for landing on a floating landing pad, causing explosions in both cases.
Last night’s launch went off without a hitch. Because Falcon 9 travels faster than any other rocket in history, the ORBCOMM satellites were deployed into orbit in less than three minutes. The first stage of the rocket then fired three “boostback burns” to realign with the Earth and make its way back to the landing pad. The rocket then positioned itself upright over the landing mark and fired its engines to slow its descent even further, gently touching down in a perfectly choreographed execution of a long-awaited historical moment.
The full 45-minute webcast of the rocket launch and landing can be viewed here.
Images via SpaceX