SpaceX has failed in its latest attempt to land the first stage of a rocket on a barge. But it was frustratingly close, and while the landing was not quite a success, the launch itself from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California passed without a hitch.
This was the third attempt the company has made to land the first stage of one of their Falcon 9 rockets on a barge. The previous two ended in similarly spectacular explosions. While a barge landing continues to elude the company, though, they did successfully land a first stage on the ground earlier this month.
On this occasion, the landing attempt was made after the launch of the Jason-3 satellite on Sunday, January 17. And it was almost perfect. The rocket touched down within a few meters of the center of the drone ship (named “Just Read the Instructions” after one of the spaceships in the science fiction works of Iain M. Banks) and appeared upright at first.
But one of the four landing legs it uses to remain stable failed to lock in place, causing the rocket to tip over and, ultimately, explode. The problem may have been ice build-up due to heavy fog at liftoff. You can check out a video of the landing attempt below.
As SpaceX CEO Elon Musk noted, the barge itself did not cause the problem. The same failure on this occasion would likely have occurred on the ground. “Definitely harder to land on a ship,” he wrote on Twitter. “Similar to an aircraft carrier vs land: much smaller target area, that’s also translating & rotating.”
But he added: “However, that was not what prevented it being good. Touchdown speed was ok, but a leg lockout didn’t latch, so it tipped over after landing.”
If barge landings can be perfected, it opens up a new range of operational capabilities for the company. Landing on the ground is good, but it means the rocket has to essentially reverse its trajectory and land back at where it launched.
For launches at high velocities, such as those going to a higher orbit, this is simply not possible. Using a barge allows for landings to take place during more launches, a step closer to SpaceX's goal of making all their rockets reusable.
While the landing experienced a slight mishap, the launch itself passed without a hitch. On this mission, SpaceX was taking the joint U.S.-European Jason-3 satellite into a near-polar orbit. Jason-3 will be used to monitor the global sea level rise, working in tandem with a twin spacecraft launched in 2008, Jason-2. It is run by several institutions including NASA, CNES, and NOAA.
“As human-caused global warming drives sea levels higher and higher, we are literally reshaping the surface of our planet,” said Josh Willis, NASA project scientist for Jason-3 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement. “These missions tell us how much and how fast.”
But for now, we’ll have to wait a little longer to see SpaceX perform the first successful barge landing.