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SpaceX has just scored a rocket-landing hat trick, as the powerful SpaceX rocket lands on a ship for the third time!
The first stage of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket came down for a soft touchdown on a ship at sea today (May 27), during the successful launch of the Thaicom 8 communications satellite. Until last month, this dramatic maritime maneuver had never been done; SpaceX has now pulled it off on three straight flights over the last seven weeks, as the powerful SpaceX rocket lands on a ship for the third time.
The two-stage Falcon 9 lifted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today at 5:40 p.m. EDT (2140 GMT). About 2.5 minutes into the flight, the two rocket stages separated; the second stage carried Thaicom 8 to its prescribed geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), and the first stage performed a series of engine burns to head back to Earth.
Less than 9 minutes after liftoff, the SpaceX rocket (Falcon 9) first stage made a pinpoint vertical landing on the deck of “Of Course I Still Love You,” one of SpaceX’s two “autonomous spaceport drone-ships,” which was stationed 420 miles (680 kilometers) off the Florida coast. When the smoke cleared and it became evident that the rocket was still standing, SpaceX employees at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California erupted in raucous cheers.
A successful touchdown was by no means assured. GTO lies far from Earth, meaning the Falcon 9 had to move pretty fast to get Thaicom 8 there.
“Droneship landing challenging — very hot and fast first-stage re-entry,” SpaceX representatives said via Twitter Thursday (May 26). (The launch and rocket landing were originally supposed to take place Thursday, but SpaceX pushed things back a day to investigate a possible issue with an actuator in the Falcon 9’s upper-stage engine.)
Indeed, today’s touchdown put a significant amount of strain on the rocket stage, said SpaceX’s billionaire founder and CEO, Elon Musk.
“Rocket landing speed was close to design max & used up contingency crush core, hence back & forth motion. Prob ok, but some risk of tipping.”
SpaceX personnel will likely head out to the drone-ship soon and — provided the booster does indeed stay upright — weld it to the deck of “Of Course I Still Love You,” to stabilize the rocket for the journey back to shore.
SpaceX pulled off a similarly difficult drone-ship landing just three weeks ago. On May 6, the SpaceX rocket Falcon 9 first stage touched down on “Of Course I Still Love You” during the launch of the Japanese communications satellite JCSAT-14, which also went to GTO.
The first successful drone-ship landing, which occurred April 8, featured lower velocities: The Falcon 9 had launched SpaceX’s robotic Dragon cargo capsule toward the International Space Station, which circles in low-Earth orbit, just 240 miles (386 km) above the planet’s surface. (For comparison, GTO lies about 22,245 miles, or 35,800 km, from Earth.)