SpaceX has made history after successfully launching its Falcon 9 rocket into space and returning it to Earth in one piece. The upgraded 23-story-tall rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:29pm EST, and touched down a few minutes later. It was the first time an unmanned rocket returned to land vertically at Cape Canaveral, and represented a tremendous success for SpaceX. The firm, led by billionaire Elon Musk, is striving for reusability to drive launch costs down and open up space to more people
The first stage of the rocket was used to propel the payload to 62 miles (100km) into space, before the second stage took over. The tall, white portion of the rocket then glided back to Earth, its engines burning bright orange against a black night sky, landing about six miles from the launch pad. ‘The Falcon has landed,’ a commentator said above the screams and cheers of people gathered at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
Video images were soon cut off and the SpaceX live webcast returned to its commentators, who described the successful deployment of the rocket’s payload of 11 satellites, ‘The Falcon first stage landing is confirmed,’ SpaceX wrote on Twitter. ‘All 11 ORBCOMM satellites have been deployed in nominal orbits.’ Welcome back, baby!’ Musk tweeted after touchdown. ‘It’s a revolutionary moment,’ Musk later told reporters. ‘No one has ever brought a booster, an orbital-class booster, back intact.’
Musk said the landing appeared close to perfect and the company ‘could not have asked for a better mission or a better day.’ The top officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, noted that the returning booster ‘placed the exclamation mark on 2015.’ ‘This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can’t even begin to describe the excitement the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing,’ Monteith said in a statement.
Nasa applauded the feat. ‘Congratulations @SpaceX on your successful vertical landing of the first stage back on Earth!’ Nasa said in a tweet. Competitor Jeff Bezos, who achieved a similar success last month, tweeted: ‘Congrats on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!’
Musk striving to revolutionize the rocket industry, which currently loses many millions of dollars in jettisoned machinery and sophisticated rocket components after each launch. What’s significant is that this was a useful mission, Musk noted, not merely a practice flight. ‘We achieved recovery of the rocket in a mission that actually deployed 11 satellites,’ he said.
SpaceX employees broke into cheers and chants, some of them jumping up and down, following the smooth touchdown nine minutes after liftoff. Previous landing attempts ended in fiery blasts, but those aimed for an ocean platform.
Musk said he ran outside and heard the sonic boom of the returning booster just as it landed; he assumed it had exploded. He learned the happy truth when he went back into Launch Control and saw video of the standing rocket.
‘I can’t quite believe it,’ he said. ‘It’s quite shocking.’ Several attempts to land the Falcon 9’s first stage on a floating ocean platform have failed – with the rocket either colliding with the autonomous drone ship or tipping over. But SpaceX has insisted that each attempt has helped engineers come closer to perfecting the technique. The launch was due to take place yesterday, but the Musk tweeted ahead of the proposed launch time that a lift off tonight would increase the chances of a good landing by 10 per cent.
He wrote: ‘Just reviewed mission [parameters with] SpaceX team. Monte Carlo runs show [tomorrow] night has a 10 per cent higher chance of a good landing.’ It is the first time the rocket has flown in the past six months following an explosion in June when carrying supplies to the ISS. The firm had planned to launch its rocket on Saturday, but Musk similarly tweeted before the launch time to say the team had been faced with ‘engineering challenges’.
The privately-held company had flown 18 successful missions with the Falcon 9 before its failure during the summer. Just minutes after its liftoff in June, the rocket broke up with a robotic Drago cargo capsule for the ISS. SpaceX said the initial part of the liftoff went well, until the vehicle went supersonic at which point it exploded. Musk posted an update soon after the explosion saying: ‘Falcon 9 experienced a problem shortly before the first stage shutdown. ‘There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank.’
After the incident, Musk said that all rockets in the future will have their struts individually tested before flight. The upcoming launch will test out a new version of the Falcon 9 that will make it easier for the company to recover the rocket after take-off. Last week, Elon Musk and his team revealed they will be making a ground landing on this attempt.Earlier this year, the billionaire signed a lease at a landing site at Cape Canaveral, and already painted an X to mark the spot of the landing. Nasa confirmed that Space X is using Kennedy Space Center’s historic pad 39A for launches of Falcon Heavy rockets.
‘Their plan is to try to land (the next booster) out here on the Cape-side,’ said Carol Scott of Nasa Commercial Crew Program, shortly after she discussed the plan with a SpaceX executive. Three previous attempts by the company to land a rocket on a barge in the ocean were ‘almost successful’. The water-based landings were always meant as practice for boosts returning to land, where they can be more easily recovered.
The company wants to land the first stages of Falcon 9 rockets so that they can be flown again, dramatically saving on launch costs. And it isn’t the only one. Last month, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos’s successfully landed a rocket at a launch site in Texas.Bezos proudly tweeted: ‘The rarest of beasts – a used rocket. Controlled landing not easy, but done right, can look easy.’
But Musk immediately hit back at the achievement, with: ‘Not quite ‘rarest’. SpaceX Grasshopper rocket did 6 suborbital flights three years ago and is still around.’The Grasshopper made eight flights and landings before it was retired in late 2013, but the highest it ever flew was around half a mile.In comparison, Bezos’ New Shepard rocket blasted off from Blue Origin’s West Texas launch site at 12:21pm CST (18.21 GMT) yesterday.
It reached a suborbital altitude of 62 miles (100 km) – much farther than the Grasshopper – and landed back at the launch site eight minutes later.In suborbital spaceflight, rockets are not traveling fast enough to reach the speed required to counter the pull of Earth’s gravity.This means they re-enter the atmosphere like a ballistic missile, but the only visible damage to the rocket is scorched metal at its base.
Being able to re-fly a rocket will slash launch costs, a game-changer for the space industry.’When you lower the cost of access to space very significantly you will change the markets, you will change what’s possible,’ Bezos said.Regardless of its distance, Musk didn’t think that the ‘suborbital’ achievement was that much to shout about.’Jeff maybe unaware SpaceX suborbital VTOL flight began 2013. Orbital water landing 2014. Orbital land landing next’, he wrote. He wanted to set the record straight on what is considered to be ‘space.’ Suborbital flights, he said, are completely different to ‘orbital’ flights which are required to send humans to Mars.
‘Getting to space needs ~Mach 3, but GTO orbit requires ~Mach 30. The energy needed is the square, i.e. 9 units for space and 900 for orbit,’ Musk tweeted. This means the Amazon founder’s rocket would need 100 times more power to become orbital.In a later conference call with the media, Bezos defended the Blue Origin achievement, highlighting that SpaceX is also making a suborbital flight.A Blue Origin spokesperson said: ‘SpaceX is only trying to recover their first stage booster, which is of course suborbital. The SpaceX first stage does an in-space deceleration burn to make their re-entry more benign.
‘If anything, the Blue Origin booster may be the one that flies through the harsher re-entry environment. Finally, the hardest part is probably the final landing segment which is the same for both boosters.’ Until now, Musk has dominated the headlines for his SpaceX test flights – but not always for the right reasons. Earlier this year, Musk released dramatic footage of the Californian company’s third attempt to land a rocket booster on a barge in the Atlantic.The video, taken from a plane, shows the Falcon 9 booster lowering itself onto the platform, before a gust of wind sways it to one side.
The 14-storey booster manages to hit the barge, but its high speed and tilt causes it to explode on impact.Landing the rocket upright was always going to be tricky. SpaceX once compared it to balancing a broomstick on your hand. DailyBouncer points out that the Falcon 9 and New Shephard are completely different vehicles and shouldn’t be compared to each other. The Falcon rocket is designed to launch satellites and cargo into orbit, which is why its so thin and tall. The shapes creates less drag, allowing it to go deeper into space. But it also makes it much harder to land back on Earth.