SpaceX Tries Again–and Almost Does It

SpaceX drone ship (SpaceX / Twitter)
SpaceX / Twitter

Elon Musk and SpaceX did it again–almost.

On Sunday, at 10:42 AM PST, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched a Jason-3 satellite into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and landed its Falcon 9 rocket booster on a floating drone ship in the ocean. However, the booster landed too hard and broke a landing leg.

Update: The landing was deemed a success, but a landing leg broke, causing the rocket to fall over on the barge.

Space X has been practicing making rockets reusable by landing them safely after launch. Last month, the company landed its Falcon 9 first stage on a landing pad at Cape Canaveral. Sunday’s attempt to land the rocket on a difficult moving target in the ocean represents the third such try by Space X; a January 2015 attempt failed because the hydraulic fluid needed to guide the booster’s landing ran short; an April 2015 attempt failed because a control valve stopped answering commands moments before landing.

According to SpaceX vice president of mission assurance Hans Koenigsmann, the third attempt at landing in the ocean was prompted because SpaceX was not given environmental approval to land the rocket near Vandenberg Air Force Base in time for launch. Koenigsmann said that although Sunday’s launch will be the last time Space X uses the Falcon 9 v1.1 generation of boosters, the decision to land on the drone ship did not involve failures of the booster, stating the rocket “could absolutely land back on land without any issues. It’s not anything technical in this case.”

On Friday, SpaceX performed a static fire test on the recovered engines from the successful December recovery; Musk tweeted:

The $180 million Jason-3 satellite, a joint NOAA and NASA project, will orbit the earth to observe global sea levels. As NOAA reports, “About 154 seconds after the Falcon-9 rocket lifts off, the main engine will cut off. About three seconds after that, the rocket’s first stage will separate. Second-stage ignition will follow in about eight seconds. Half a minute into the second-stage burn, the payload fairing, or launch vehicle nose cone, will be jettisoned–a bit over three minutes after launch. The first cutoff of the second-stage engine will take place nine minutes after liftoff.”

Despite the hard landing, and the loss of a video feed on the drone ship, the rest of the mission appeared to go smoothly, and was greeted by cheers at SpaceX HQ in Los Angeles on a live webcast.