Dust off the history books, because today is a huge moment for space travel. For the first time ever, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has returned part of an orbital rocket safely to the ground. It promises to usher in a new era of reusable spaceflight.
The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 8.29 p.m. EST yesterday (1.29 a.m. GMT today), taking 11 satellites to orbit as part of the ORBCOMM-2 mission. But undoubtedly the highlight of the mission occurred ten minutes later, when the first stage of the rocket used its thrusters to touch down at a landing site 10 kilometers (six miles) from the launch pad, having traveled to a height of 200 kilometers (125 miles).
Understandably, the moment was met with wild celebrations at SpaceX Headquarters. "We could not have asked for a more perfect mission, it was absolutely perfect, with the booster touching down almost dead center," Elon Musk said in a press conference after the launch, reported Motherboard.
11 satellites deployed to target orbit and Falcon has landed back at Cape Canaveral. Headed to LZ-1. Welcome back, baby!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2015
Writer Amy Lynn, who was at the launch, told IFLScience that the landing was greeted by a series of sonic booms, the likes of which have not been heard on American soil since the days of the Space Shuttle.
"A couple of people around me were confused about the booms," she said. "But then, after the smoke cleared, we saw that rocket standing tall right where it should be."
Returning rockets to the ground after launching has been one of the key goals of California-based SpaceX. The company has failed on two previous attempts; in those instances, it tried to land on a barge.
But now with renewed confidence, having learned lessons from those failures and despite a rocket launch failure in June, the company decided to attempt a landing on the ground with this mission. Their daring persistence paid off.
Above is a video of the landing filmed from a helicopter. SpaceX
At the moment, all rockets are expendable. They are discarded after launch, either in oceans or on the ground, and this is often likened to scrapping a plane every time it made a flight from one place to another.
So SpaceX has been keen to reuse rockets, which would dramatically bring the cost of launching down, possibly by a factor of 10. Currently, it costs tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram to get anything into orbit.
This is not strictly the first rocket landing. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin successfully launched and returned their New Shephard vehicle to space last month. But that rocket will be used mostly for short hops into space; Musk wants to make much larger rockets that can reach orbit, namely his Falcon 9 and ultimately the extremely powerful Falcon Heavy, reusable.
This long exposure photo shows the launch (left) and landing (right). Used with permission from Jared Haworth
On this particular occasion, the first stage of the rocket will not be used again. But proving that the process works is a huge moment, and allows SpaceX to further refine the technique in future.
The rest of the launch itself passed without a hitch. All 11 satellites were successfully deployed by the second stage of the rocket in orbit, which was then sent to burn up in the atmosphere. Ultimately SpaceX wants to make the second stage reusable, too.
But for now, revel in a potentially defining moment in space travel. As we endeavor to reduce the cost of getting to space and improve our access to the cosmos, SpaceX is making strides that many other companies can only dream of.
Check out a video replay of the flight below. The launch is at 22:50, while the landing is about ten minutes later at 32:25