SpaceX successfully launched one of its reusable rockets again yesterday, but there was quite an unusual landing attempt when the rocket splashed down in the Atlantic – and survived.
The company was launching a large satellite for the Luxembourg government, called GovSat-1 or SES-16, into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit. The rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida at 4.25pm EST (9.25pm GMT) yesterday, January 31.
This was the second time the first stage booster on this rocket had flown to orbit, the first coming back in May 2017 when it was used for SpaceX’s first US military launch. Back then, the booster – called Core 1032 – successfully landed at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral.
But on this occasion, SpaceX wanted to try out a new landing technique. Although we don’t know all the details, it looks like they were trying to use three of the rocket’s nine engines to land, rather than just one. This could allow for a higher powered landing and thus a shorter burn so that less fuel is expended during the landing.
SpaceX conducts landings both on the ground and on floating drone ships out at sea for higher launches like this one. With this landing, however, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said they didn’t want to attempt touching down on a drone ship, for fear of damaging it with this experimental technique.
Rather surprisingly, however, the rocket seems to have survived its unusual ocean landing. Musk said they would now attempt to recover the booster, although it’s unclear if it will be used for another launch (saltwater damage might make that a bit tricky, as the Space Shuttle encountered).
“This rocket was meant to test very high retro-thrust landing in water so it didn’t hurt the drone ship, but amazingly it has survived,” Musk tweeted. “We will try to tow it back to shore.”
This isn’t the first time SpaceX has performed an ocean landing. In the early days of their reusability tests, they used this method to practice their landing techniques. Now it looks like they've refined them even more with this latest test.
The launch yesterday was SpaceX’s second successful launch of the year, after taking the secretive Zuma payload to orbit on January 7 – although the status of Zuma is not clear.
Its next launch is a little rocket you may have heard of called the Falcon Heavy. It’s scheduled to launch on Tuesday, February 6, and yes, there’s plenty of excitement for that one. The three boosters on that launch are expected to land back on Earth, two at Cape Canaveral and one on a floating drone ship.