Breaking through a dense fog a SpaceX rocket carried the Jason-3 satellite into low-Earth orbit on Sunday, but the Falcon 9’s first-stage is not upright on the ocean barge after a return landing attempt.
Lifting off with 1.3 million pounds of thrust, the Falcon 9 launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 10:42 a.m. PST/1:42 p.m. EST. The first and second stage of the rocket separated over Africa, sending the second stage powered by a Merlin vacuum engine to deliver the Jason-3 into orbit.
The first stage, fired a boostback burn to reverse the rocket’s direction and attempt a controlled landing on the ocean droneship “Just Read the Instructions,” named for the starship in Ian M. Banks’ science fiction series.
SpaceX confirmed the Falcon 9 first-stage was on target for its landing, but a hard landing may have broken a booster leg on touchdown. The fate of the booster was unknown for about 10 suspenseful minutes when the live video from the droneship in the Pacific Ocean cut out just as the rocket’s legs were deployed for landing.
“Definitely harder to land on a ship,” tweeted SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “Similar to an aircraft carrier versus land.” Return speed was good, but a leg lockout didn’t latch and the first stage tipped over after touchdown, said Musk.
Three previous barge-landing attempts failed, but SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 booster at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after launching 11 ORBCOMM satellites in December.
The mission of th Jason-3 satellite is to continue an unbroken record of more than two decades of sea level measurements from orbit and to monitor systems like El Nino. Jason-3 will replace Jason-2, which has been in orbit since mid-2008.
As El Nino strengthened this year, the Jason-3 was stuck on Earth waiting for its ride. Jason-3’s launch was originally scheduled for August 2015 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but the launch was postponed after a Falcon 9 rocket exploded minutes after launching a cargo mission to the International Space Station in June. The successful launch and landing last month was a historic comeback for SpaceX and their launch vehicle.
Jason-3, built by Thales Alenia of France, is a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites.
A signal from Jason-3 was received by mission control and the solar panels successfully deployed on schedule 1 hour and 40 minutes after launch. A full health check on the satellite will happen when it passes over the African ground station.