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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

SpaceX Sticks the Landing!

By Phil Plait

Eight minutes and 35 seconds after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched into space, the first stage booster came back to Earth and successfully landed vertically on a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

This was seriously one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life. Watch for yourself:

Like I said. Amazing.

The previous attempts to bring the booster down at sea have met with, um, limited success, a few with what SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has called “rapid unscheduled disassembly” events. In other words, boom.

The idea behind this is that building a first stage Falcon 9 booster is expensive, but cleaning, checking out, refurbishing, and relaunching one is much cheaper. Those steps are still to come, and we’ll see what the real-world costs and testing yields. But for now, the critical first step has been taken.

I’ve described why this feat is so technically challenging before; the first stage booster is moving eastward at about 6,000 kph (3,600 mph) when its engine cuts off (the second stage takes over from there). The booster has to flip over, slow down, put itself on the right trajectory, come in over the floating barge, then relight its engines at just the right amount to kill its velocity and land upright. Because it’s hundreds of kilometers east of Florida by the time it starts to come back, it helps to have a landing platform out to sea to save rocket fuel. In December, the booster successfully touched down vertically back at the landing site, and this is the first time it’s been done at sea. SpaceX now has shown it has the flexibility to retrieve the booster under a variety of launch configurations.

Incidentally, the barge is named Of Course I Still Love You, after a spaceship in a novel by Iain Banks

Mind you as well, the primary mission was to launch a Dragon capsule full of supplies to the International Space Station, and that is going well right now too. The Dragon was placed in to orbit by the Falcon 9 second stage minutes after the first stage booster landed. The solar panels deployed (needed to power the capsule for its two-day journey to catch up to ISS), and it’s on the right trajectory.

Supplies on board include food, equipment, and live mice (for an experiment dealing with muscle wasting in microgravity). Also included is a bouncy castle an inflatable habitat built by the Bigelow Aerospace, literally a balloon that will be attached to a module on ISS and inflated to test how such a habitat can be used in space. They are much lighter and less expensive than building a rigid structure, and may well be used commonly in the future of space exploration.

All of this is boggling. Mind you, the last attempt by SpaceX to send a Dragon to ISS ended in the rocket disintegrating moments after takeoff when a strut broke inside the booster, causing a helium tank to explode and rupture the booster’s outer skin. There have been a few Falcon9 launches since, but this is the first to go back to ISS. And it’s on its way.

My sincere and slack-jawed congratulations to SpaceX, Elon Musk, and everyone who helped put this bird into space, and brought a piece of space history back to Earth. Well done.

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