On January 10, the ambitious space transportation company SpaceX attempted a truly audacious experiment: landing part of a rocket safely back on Earth so that it can be recycled. While the Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched the company’s Dragon capsule which later delivered desperately needed supplies to the International Space Station, unfortunately the vehicle didn’t return in one piece but instead made a crash landing. Now, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has released footage and a series of images of the dramatic event, and they’re pretty awesome.
As you can see in the photo and vine below, the booster rocket hit its landing spot, a football field-sized autonomous barge, at roughly a 45-degree angle before exploding.
Elon Musk, via Twitter.
The vehicle was successfully maneuvered towards the boat through a combination of automatic engine firings and hypersonic grid fins, but the fins ran out of hydraulic fluid just before landing. Unfortunately, this meant that the rocket lost control and came down way too hard, demolishing its landing legs, and then its residual fuel ignited and the whole thing went up in flames. Although it looks dramatic, Musk said that the boat sustained little damage and only requires minor repairs.
While the experiment didn’t quite go as planned, we must remember that something like this had never been attempted before, and although the rocket can’t be reused as intended, what SpaceX achieved was still incredible. And Musk isn’t going to let one failed experiment deter him as he already has a repeat planned in a few weeks’ time, but the rocket will be equipped with 50% more hydraulic fluid.
The reason that SpaceX is endeavoring to recycle rockets is because it could ultimately slash the cost of space exploration. Traditionally, rockets are only intended for one use and after the payload is detached, the vehicle’s heavy first stage is dumped. These ditched parts then either burn up during reentry or smash into the sea. If rockets can be used multiple times, each mission would no longer require an expensive new one.