Late on Monday, the first stage booster of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed upright on solid ground at Cape Canaveral. With eleven satellites on board, the Falcon 9 travelled 200 kilometres before returning to Earth. This marks the first time that an orbital rocket has completed a soft landing, and it has been heralded as a major step towards reusable rocket technology.
Falcon 9 is a family of two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicles, designed and manufactured by SpaceX, the company founded in 2002 by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. The first stage is responsible for accelerating the vehicle, while the second stage subsequently detaches from the first and continues to orbit under its own steam.
Near its peak on Monday night, the Falcon 9 propelled its second stage, bearing the Orbcomm satellites, out into space. The 47-metre tall white booster then descended to earth in a ball of glowing orange light, landing about 10 kilometres from its launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Reusability has been a key factor for SpaceX from the earliest days of the Falcon 1 rocket, the predecessor to the Falcon 9, which made its first successful flight on 28 September 2008. At a SpaceX press conference in June 2010, Elon Musk responded to a question about reusability by stating:
‘We will never give up! Never! Reusability is one of the most important goals. If we become the biggest launch company in the world, making money hand over fist, but we’re still not reusable, I will consider us to have failed.’
SpaceX has attempted to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 twice before. In January and again in April, seeking to land on their autonomous spaceport drone ship, effectively a floating platform out in the Atlantic ocean, the rockets toppled and crashed. Then in June, the Falcon 9 exploded 2 minutes and 19 seconds after launch, on a NASA-contracted mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. The cause was the failure of the liquid oxygen tank in the rocket’s second stage. Monday’s launch was the first time SpaceX has flown since June.
Following the two efforts earlier this year, SpaceX switched Monday’s landing site to solid ground, a more predictable target. And they introduced an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, known internally as the Falcon 9 v.1.1 Full Thrust. The first stage of the updated rocket features an increased thrust-to-weight ratio.
The Falcon 9 is not the first space craft overall to land a booster vertically. On 23 November the private spaceflight company Blue Origin, established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, announced that it had achieved a soft landing with its rocket New Shepard. Both New Shepard’s space capsule and rocket booster returned successfully to Earth. But New Shepard ascended just beyond 100 kilometres in altitude. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is more complex than New Shepard, journeying higher and faster into space.
Until now, all rockets travelling into orbit have been either destroyed or lost after launch. Reusable rockets would fundamentally change the space industry, radically reducing costs and forcing competing launch providers to develop new technology to compete with SpaceX.
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