The reusable rocket SpaceX successfully lands at sea for the first time

The private spaceflight company SpaceX successfully landed a reusable Falcon 9 rocket booster today  the second such landing for the company, and the first successful touchdown on a ship. The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 4:43 p.m. today (April 8) from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It carried SpaceX’s robotic Dragon cargo spacecraft, which is now on its way to the International Space Station, carrying crew supplies, station hardware and science experiments. SpaceX streamed live video of the historic rocket landing during the launch (see video below).

After separating from Dragon a few minutes after lift off, the Falcon 9’s first stage performed several flyback engine burns, then eventually lowered itself vertically onto a SpaceX drone ship that was stationed off the Florida coast.

This was the fifth attempt in 15 months by SpaceX to land one of its rocket boosters on a drone ship; in each of the previous four tries, the rocket reached the ship successfully, but failed the landing. SpaceX has made one successful landing of a Falcon 9 booster in December 2015, but that was on a landing pad on solid ground, at Cape Canaveral. Today’s launch kicked off SpaceX’s eighth attempted cargo run for NASA, as part of the agency’s Commercial Resupply (CRS) program. This is the first time SpaceX has launched a Dragon cargo vehicle for NASA since June 2015, when one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded shortly after lift off, destroying the cargo capsule in the process.

 

Launch plan for Jason-3 and Falcon 9 landing attempt.

Launch plan for Jason-3 and Falcon 9 landing attempt.

 

The rocket booster touched down on a robotic drone ship called “Of Course I Still Love You.” It is one of two robotic drone ships used by SpaceX for its rocket landing attempts, the second of which is named “Just Read the Instructions”. The ship titles honor author Iain M. Banks; both are names of sentient, planet-sized Culture starships that first appear in Banks’ “The Player of Games”.

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SpaceX recently upgraded its Falcon 9 rocket, and today’s flight was also the first time a Dragon cargo craft has been at top of the updated booster. The launch failure occurs in June 2015 was attributed to a faulty strut in the Falcon 9’s upper stage. While for this upgraded rocket (version 1.2.) the biggest changes were made to the rocket’s strut system.

 

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The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the space station on Sunday (April 10). Astronauts on board the station are set to grab the spacecraft with the station’s robotic arm at about 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT). An Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft is already docked to the station, and this will be the first time two American commercial cargo vehicles will be at the station at the same time. Two features of the Dragon spacecraft are particularly useful to the ISS station: Its ability to return to Earth, and its unpressurized exterior storage compartment.

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Stored in the trunk (exterior storage compartment)  of the Dragon craft is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which is packed up like a parachute but can be made to expand to more than five times its compressed volume. Assuming everything goes to plan, BEAM will be attached to the Tranquility Node of the station, and will become the first expandable habitat occupied by humans in space. Bigelow Aerospace has already tested two other expandable habitats in orbit, without human occupants. The second beneficial feature for NASA is that Dragon can return to Earth without burning up in the atmosphere. This Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth on May 11 carrying, among other things, science samples from the One-Year Mission, in which NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko stayed aboard the station from March 2015 until March of this year.

SpaceX is aiming to increase its total number of yearly launches, the next scheduled launch for the company will come near the end of April, with another set for the beginning of May.

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