Monday, May 9, 2016

SpaceX Just Landed A Second Rocket On A Drone Ship - At Night!

Friday, May 6, 2016 was National Space Day, a great annual day of celebration and acknowledgment of our human future in space. My Twitter feed was abuzz with info from space companies, including NASA, hosting special events and exhibits for the day. This inspired my following tweet, and brings us to the topic of this blog post:

Yes, SpaceX landed another spent rocket stage on an ocean-going barge, the "Of Course I Still Love You", during high waves and wind, with the rocket coming in faster and hotter than it did last month. This time, SpaceX was tasked with delivering a Japanese satellite, the JCsat-14, into high geo-stationary transfer orbit at about 25,000 mi (36,000 km) above Earth's surface. Compare this to last month's successful launch and landing mission, when Falcon traveled into low-earth orbit (LEO) "only", ca. 250 mi (400 km) above our planet, to re-supply the International Space Station. Consequently, last Friday, Falcon was traveling many thousands kilometers faster on ascent than it did last month and also had less fuel available for those critical pre-landing burns upon its return. And yet, Falcon 9 landed perfectly, under harsh conditions, standing proud and tall on its landing barge, still breathing fire. And you know what? I'm starting to feel less and less nostalgic about the Space Shuttle.

Image credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 with its JCsat-14 satellite payload on the pad at Cape Canaveral, awaiting launch. The rocket stands 229 ft (70m) tall.

Image credit: SpaceX
Mission patch for the JCsat-14 mission

Image credit: SpaceX
LIFTOFF of Falcon 9 with its JCsat-14 payload!

Image credit: SpaceX
Trajectory of Falcon 9 and its payload en route to 36,000 km above Earth

While last month's barge landing happened during the day time and was filmed by nearby quad copters from the air, no such footage exists for last week's night landing. The only transmitting cameras were mounted on the barge itself. This led to temporary "white out" conditions as the brightness of the landing burn briefly overloaded the cameras. Those were nail-biting seconds. Did Falcon land? Did it break apart? Did it fall into the ocean? It wasn't until the brightness had receded that the barge's camera revealed Falcon 9's landing legs intact, and with that, another upright, beautiful landing of historic significance. 

Congratulations to Elon Musk and the entire team at SpaceX!

Image credit: SpaceX
View of landed Falcon 9 upper stage - still breathing fire - on the drone ship

Image credit: SpaceX
Recovered Falcon 9 on SpaceX's drone ship the next morning in all its - albeit a bit scorched - glory. (Let's see you travel 36,000 km out and then back into the atmosphere in a matter of minutes :)

Elon Musk, as per usual, inserted his own particular brand of wry humor into the twitter discussion once it had become clear that Falcon was safely on the barge, and would be tested for reuse, along with the booster recovered last month:

Here's a video of the launch and landing details only:

The entire hour-long webcast from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA is worth a look as well, if only to experience the jubilant atmosphere that prevailed among SpaceX employees as their rocket performed flawlessly, including sticking a precarious landing on an ocean-borne barge, for the second time in a month.