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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

SpaceX nails the landing after an historic launch

By Phil Plait

Yesterday morning, Sunday, February 19, 2017, SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket into orbit. The primary mission: Loft a Dragon capsule containing 2500 kilograms of cargo to the International Space Station. Spoiler alert: They did it.

Well, they did most of it; the launch was a success (after a one-day delay due to a “slightly odd” behavior of the second stage engine steering mechanism), and the Dragon is now on its way to ISS; berthing is scheduled for 06:00 Eastern time Wednesday, February 22. This is the tenth ISS resupply mission for SpaceX.

Of course, all eyes were on the secondary mission, which was to land the first stage booster back on Earth. Spoiler alert again: They did this, too! Somehow, even though this is the eighth such successful landing, the shine hasn’t worn off. It’s still amazing to watch.

In fact, you can watch it again: SpaceX posted video of the landing taken from a drone, and it’s incredible:

Oh, yeah. This was the third successful landing of the booster at Landing Zone 1, located at the Cape Canaveral launch complex in Florida, and the first during the day. Speaking of which, this launch was also somewhat historic because it was the first for SpaceX from the fabled Launch Complex Pad 39A, which was the site of the crewed Apollo Saturn V launches (except Apollo 10), as well as the final launch of a Space Shuttle, Atlantis, in 2011. SpaceX leases that pad from NASA.

SpaceX has put up the entire launch sequence on video as well:

Some highlights: Launch is at the 14:35 mark. At 21:15, the booster performs a re-entry burn to slow itself. You can see the grid fins moving back and forth to guide the booster, as well. At 22:18 or so, the landing burn begins just as the booster plunges down through the low cloud layer. Then, at 22:52, it touches down. Going back to the primary mission, the Dragon capsule solar power arrays deploy at 27:28; those power the on-board batteries for the two days it takes to approach ISS.

If you want details on the mission, including how the booster gets back to Earth, check out NASA Spaceflight.

I’ll note the point of bringing the boosters back down is to save money: It costs about $60 million to build one, but only a million or two to fix it up, refuel it, and launch it again. SpaceX has yet to actually do this, but they’re planning on their first reused booster launch sometime this year. They also announced that they’ll be reusing a Dragon capsule for the 11th ISS resupply mission, scheduled for early April.

That will be the real test. If they can do it, they’ll have found a way to save a lot of money on launch costs, which was one of the main goals of SpaceX when the company was founded. All we have right now is speculation on the actual costs and needed engineering to make this happen; once they launch a reused booster we’ll be able to see just what the economics are.

But for now, this mission has gone very well. After a pair of lost rockets, including one in 2015 to resupply the ISS, I always breathe a sigh of relief once the Dragon is in orbit. Congratulations to SpaceX, and may the rest of this mission go as well.