SpaceX has achieved another milestone in creating truly reusable space launch technology. On July 22, 2014, the privatized spaceflight company, chaired and funded by billionaire tycoon Elon Musk, announced that the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket returned to Earth and soft landed in the Atlantic Ocean.
Returning from jettisoning six ORBCOMM satellites, the Falcon 9 managed to efficiently fire its main engines twice, deploy its landing legs, and achieve near zero velocity before landing.
Although the hull was breached when the Falcon 9 impacted with the water after tipping horizontally, everything else went according to plan for SpaceX. Enough data was recorded to prepare SpaceX for attempted solid landings during Flight 14 and Flight 15, which are scheduled for later this year.
Here’s the full press release from the SpaceX website:
Following last week’s successful launch of six ORBCOMM satellites, the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage reentered Earth’s atmosphere and soft landed in the Atlantic Ocean. This test confirms that the Falcon 9 booster is able consistently to reenter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs and touch down at near zero velocity.
After landing, the vehicle tipped sideways as planned to its final water safing state in a nearly horizontal position. The water impact caused loss of hull integrity, but we received all the necessary data to achieve a successful landing on a future flight. Going forward, we are taking steps to minimize the build up of ice and spots on the camera housing in order to gather improved video on future launches.
At this point, we are highly confident of being able to land successfully on a floating launch pad or back at the launch site and refly the rocket with no required refurbishment. However, our next couple launches are for very high velocity geostationary satellite missions, which don’t allow enough residual propellant for landing. In the longer term, missions like that will fly on Falcon Heavy, but until then Falcon 9 will need to fly in expendable mode.
We will attempt our next water landing on flight 13 of Falcon 9, but with a low probability of success. Flights 14 and 15 will attempt to land on a solid surface with an improved probability of success.
With this latest development in the usability of Falcon 9, SpaceX is one step closer to the vertical landings as demonstrated by their Grasshopper experimental flights earlier this year, shown in the video below.
Spaceflight enthusiasts, like myself, await the outcomes of future landings to see if SpaceX can finally pull off a complete vertical takeoff and landing of its reusable Falcon 9 rocket.