US private spaceflight company SpaceX has, for the first time ever, managed to return the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket to a ship.
The successful landing occurred as the company launched the CRS-8 resupply mission to the International Space Station.
CRS-8 is the first flight of the Dragon capsule since a post-launch explosion in June last year.
The craft itself will carry vital supplies for the ISS as part of the Commercial Resupply Services program with NASA.
SpaceX managed to land a first stage on land in late 2015, however had so far been unable to return a stage to their so-called ‘autonomous drone ship’.
Landing from the chase plane pic.twitter.com/2Q5qCaPq9P
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 8, 2016
Sticking a sea-based landing is an important milestone for the company in its quest to develop reusable rockets.
While some mission profiles allow for a return to the launch site on land, for many others, the craft does not have enough fuel, and is forced to land in the ocean instead.
This ability will be particularly important for SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket which consists of three Falcon 9 cores, of which the central core must always land at sea to be reused.
Reusing as many first stages as possible will enable SpaceX in the long run to significantly reduce its launch costs, making it much cheaper for companies to send cargo into orbit.
Beyond regular supplies and food for the ISS, the CRS-8 mission is also carrying one other piece of important cargo – the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).
Stored in the unpressurized cargo trunk of the Dragon spacecraft, BEAM consists of an inflatable module for the ISS produced by Bigelow Aerospace.
One the Dragon has berthed with the ISS, the BEAM module will be remotely attached to one of the space station’s docking points and then slowly inflated.
Should this be successful, astronauts will then periodically enter the module to test how its layered, super-strong composite skin is faring in the harsh environment of space.
BEAM serves as a demonstration of inflatable space habitats, which are theoretically superior to rigid structures due to their smaller launch volumes.
Bigelow Aerospace earlier this week announced that it plans to launch two larger BA 330 modules by 2020 to build the world’s first private space station.