Recently, SpaceX had been on a hot streak, stringing together three successful ocean landings. This success was easy to take for granted, however, as there is nothing routine about going to space, not to mention autonomously landing its first stage rocket on a barge in the sea.
SpaceX successfully launched two satellites into orbit on Wednesday; however they could not quite pull of its fourth consecutive rocket landing at sea in the process.
SpaceX rocket crashes and burns
The first stage of the California-based company’s Falcon 9 rocket did manage to hit its target – a robotic “droneship” stationed in the Atlantic Ocean, a few hundred miles off the Florida coast – but wasn’t able to stick the landing.
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Just as the Falcon 9 rocket touched down onto the droneship, called the Of Course I Still Love You, the live video feed completely cut out. At first, both the company and at-home viewers were clueless as to whether or not the rocket had indeed landed properly and safely. For a moment, the rocket was visible among the smoke clouds upright on the landing pad. However, something happened and the rocket was destroyed, according to SpaceX.
“Ascent phases & satellites look good, but booster rocket had a RUD on droneship,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted. (“RUD” is the acronym for “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”) This typically means that the rocket tipped over or crashed into the ship.
“Landing video will be posted when we gain access to cameras on the droneship later today,” Musk shared on his social media account. “Maybe the hardest impact to date. Drone ship still ok.”
Still a “mission success”
The Falcon 9 rocket launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force station this morning at 10:29 a.m. EDT. Around two and a half minutes later, the rocket booster’s two stages separated. The upper stage continued on to carry the Eutelsat 117 West B and ABS-2A commercial communications satellites to a distant geostationary transfer orbit. The first stage turned around and returned to Earth, where it subsequently crashed.
Representatives for SpaceX had said previously that today’s landing would be difficult. Rockets that carry satellites to geostationary transfer orbit have to travel at high speed, which translates to the Falcon 9 first stage being subjected to extremely high temperatures and forces as it returned through Earth’s atmosphere.
“Looks like thrust was low on 1 of 3 landing engines. High g landings v sensitive to all engines operating at max,” Musk later added on Twitter. “Upgrades underway to enable rocket to compensate for a thrust shortfall on one of the three landing engines. Probably get there end of year.”
While landings during geostationary transfer orbit missions are indeed difficult, they are not impossible. SpaceX has had two previous successful landings on geostationary transfer orbit missions on May 6 and May 27.
The company’s first successful droneship landing came on April 8, though this mission was easier that any of SpaceX’s other attempts. The Falcon 9 rocket launched the company’s robotic Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, which orbits at an altitude of just 240 miles above Earth’s surface. Geostationary transfer orbit is about 22,245 miles above the Earth’s surface.
While this crash may seem like a failure and a step backwards for the company, these touchdowns, and the failures as well, are part of the company’s effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets. These reusable rockets are a breakthrough that Musk has previously said would cut the cost of spaceflight dramatically.