After several delays due to technical problems, a wayward boat and gusty high-altitude winds, SpaceX finally launched a commercial satellite to space Friday evening from Cape Canaveral. But an attempt to land the first stage of the unmanned and upgraded Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean was unsuccessful.
A few minutes after what appeared to be a flawless launch, commentators on SpaceX's live webcast said that the first stage was headed toward the platform. A camera on board showed what appeared to be a flash, and then went out. Later, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the tech billionaire, tweeted that the rocket "landed hard" on the floating platform he calls an “autonomous space port droneship.” Still, the miss is considered something of a success by SpaceX, and Musk tweeted that the "next flight has a good chance."
Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted that "making it back to the drone ship for this launch profile is a triumph in itself. Much learned. Congratulations!"
For years, SpaceX has been attempting to disrupt the space market by developing rockets that could fly to space, and then land so that they could be reused. If the company is successful, it would mark a dramatic change to the way rockets have flown to space for decades—and could dramatically lower the cost of spaceflight.
While much of the attention was on SpaceX's landing attempt, the main goal of Friday's mission was to deliver a satellite for SES, a European communications company, that would provide high definition video and Internet service to Southeast Asia.
Rocket landed hard on the droneship. Didn't expect this one to work (v hot reentry), but next flight has a good chance.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 5, 2016
Typically, the first stage, the longest, most powerful part of the rocket, uses its enormous thrust to help escape Earth’s gravity. Once it gets to space, it separates, and a second stage powers on to orbit. The first stage, which is also known as a booster, then drops into the ocean, never to be used again.
In December, the company pulled off its quest to land the first stage at a landing pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a historic first for a rocket designed to power its payload to orbit. A month earlier, Jeffrey P. Bezos’ Blue Origin pulled off a similar feat, but with a smaller, less powerful rocket for missions designed to go just past the edge of space, and not to orbit. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
SpaceX has also previously tried to land its rocket on the drone ships coming close but ultimately failing to remain upright.
Before Friday's launch, the company warned that, “a successful landing is not expected.”
Its previous landing attempts came after launches to an altitude of more than a couple hundred miles up. But Friday's launch was destined to go much further, to Geostationary Transfer Orbit, more than 22,000 miles away. The great distance makes a landing attempt difficult. The higher the altitude, the greater the velocity on return.
To get the satellite that high “we’re going to need a lot of propellant,” Lauren Lyons, a SpaceX enginner, said during the company’s webcast last week. “That means we’re not going to have a ton of it leftover in the first stage when we fly it back down to the droneship. And given the need to use every single last drop of that remaining propellant to burn the Falcon 9 engines to slow it down, and to orient it on to the drone ship, this landing attempt is going to be one of the more challenging ones that we’ve done.”
Even though SpaceX landed a rocket successfully on land in December, Musk has said it would still need to be able to land at sea for “high velocity missions,” where getting back to land is more challenging--and dangerous. The company is also developing its Falcon Heavy rocket, which would be powered by 27 engines, or three times as many as the Falcon 9.
The rocket that launched Friday is an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, and it has only flown once before. It is fueled by unusually cold liquid oxygen, which has caused some problems last week.
Last week, the company scrubbed the launch “out of an abundance of caution” to ensure the temperature of its liquid oxygen was a low as possible. The company also had to abort the launch the following day with less than two minutes until liftoff because the propellant "wasn't loading as expected," the company said.
Then on Sunday, the flight computer detected a problem and aborted the launch seconds before liftoff, even though the engines had started to fire. Earlier in the evening, a tugboat had crossed into an off-limits area under the flight path, creating a safety issue.