US private spaceflight company SpaceX last night successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket following an orbital launch.
The rocket, which carried a payload of 11 small satellites for business communications company Orbcomm successfully launched from Cape Canaveral at 20:29 last night.
Approximately 10 minutes later, following stage separation and no less than three separate re-entry burns, the first stage made an almost perfect landing back at the launch site.
“11 satellites deployed to target orbit and Falcon has landed back at Cape Canaveral. Headed to LZ-1. Welcome back, baby!” proclaimed SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Twitter.
This landmark achievement represents the first time an orbital rocket has been successfully landed vertically back on Earth.
Return to flight
The Orbcomm-2 mission also represented SpaceX’s return to flight following the catastrophic failure of its previous CRS-7 mission just minutes after launch.
After a lengthy review and audit process, the launch was determined to have failed due to a faulty strut supplied by an outside contractor.
Last night’s flight was also the debut of the Falcon 9 v1.2, also known as the ‘full-thrust’ version of the rocket, which features significant improvements over its predecessors.
Primarily it makes use of super-chilled liquid oxygen to increase the oxidizer’s density and thus improve the rocket’s thrust-to-weight ratio. These improvements will allow Falcon 9 first stages to be landed even after launches to geostationary rather than low-earth orbits.
Through demonstrating that it can successfully land the first stage of an orbital rocket following launch, SpaceX is setting the scene for a new era of reusable rockets.
While in the past rockets have been one-time-use affairs, SpaceX is hoping to disrupt the industry through refurbishing and then re-launching the first stage of its rockets.
This approach, it hopes, will enable the company to significantly undercut its competitors in the orbital launch business.
In the future SpaceX hopes to use these reusable rockets to transport astronauts to the ISS, as well as to form the backbone of its larger Falcon Heavy rocket currently under development.