Apparently, SpaceX is landing rockets on Earth even when it doesn’t really mean to.
As I’ve written before, SpaceX re-uses its rockets to cut down the cost of spaceflight launches. To compare, it cost NASA about $450 million to launch one space shuttle mission, compared to SpaceX, who can launch the Falcon 9 for $62 million or the Falcon Heavy for $90 million. The launch yesterday (January 31, 2018), which was SES-16/GovSat 1, used a previously launched rocket
SpaceX has previously landed rockets on barges in the ocean, as well as on land, so I guess the next logical step would be to land it in the ocean, right?
This rocket was meant to test very high retrothrust landing in water so it didn’t hurt the droneship, but amazingly it has survived. We will try to tow it back to shore. pic.twitter.com/hipmgdnq16
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 31, 2018
The landing is impressive, but it has some competition with this landing from the game Kerbal Space Program:
SpaceX today. Probably. pic.twitter.com/IPtP6BLLrj
— Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist) February 1, 2018
But Space.com explains what this means:
In a reply to Twitter commenters, Musk said that today’s “landing” involved three of the first stage’s nine Merlin engines. The boosters have traditionally used just one engine during touchdown operations.
What this means is that normally, the Falcon 9 would use just one rocket to slow itself back to Earth, but in yesterday’s launch, it used three, and SpaceX did not want to damage the drone ship with the extra force that would result.
The Verge elaborated:
But though there wasn’t a drone ship in place to catch the Falcon 9’s fall, the rocket still went through all the steps of landing: it re-ignited its engines three times in a series of landing burns to lower itself down gently to Earth. In a tweet, Musk revealed that the rocket was actually testing out a very high powered landing technique with the rocket, and the company didn’t want to hurt the drone ship during the fall. It seems clear SpaceX did not expect the rocket to survive, but it now has to figure out how to bring the hardy vehicle back home.
Amazing. SpaceX is so good that they can’t help but land a rocket even when they don’t intend to.
This was the last launch before SpaceX attempts its Falcon Heavy launch, to send Elon Musk’s own Tesla Roadster to permanent orbit around Mars. While the mission goal is pretty incredible for a private company, it’s important to remember that the mission itself will be a success if the Falcon Heavy clears the launchpad without incident. As I previously wrote, progress is incremental, and this will be a HUGE step!