Last weekend marked another rocket landing for privately held U.S. space company SpaceX, moving it one step closer to reusability.
Falcon 9 landing. Image source: SpaceX.
SpaceX lands another Falcon 9
At 1:26 a.m. EDT on Sunday morning, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 first stage, carrying a JCSAT 16 communications satellite upper-stage payload. After successfully detaching from the upper stage, the 165-foot tall boost-stage flipped around and blasted toward a barge in the Atlantic Ocean for an "experimental landing attempt."
As the rocket approached the barge and its center engine fired to support a soft landing on the rocket's four deployable legs, the unreliable live-stream internet video feed coming from the barge blacked out. A minute or so later, however, the live feed resumed, revealing the company's sixth landed rocket, and its second in a row.
Around the same time, SpaceX confirmed the less-exciting, but more-important news for SpaceX clients, that the Falcon 9's upper-stage successfully released the JCSAT 16 into orbit.
When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk boldly predicted earlier this year that the company would land 70% of its rockets this year, it was hard to believe. After all, at the time of the prediction, the company had attempted to land Falcon 9 four times, and only did so successfully once. Even more, the rocket it did land was on ground; yet SpaceX would be forced to land its Falcon 9 rocket at sea the majority of the time.
But just more than halfway through 2016, SpaceX incredibly has landed a total of six rockets -- five during this year alone. Failing to land Falcon 9 only three times in 2016, SpaceX has already achieved a 63% landing rate for the year. And when including the company's successful landing on ground in December, SpaceX has a 67% landing rate for its last nine attempts -- just below its 70% target.
Going forward, SpaceX will put its Falcon 9 to the test again during the first week of September, when the company is scheduled to launch the Falcon 9 loaded with an Israeli Amos 6 communications satellite. Following this flight, the U.S. space company is scheduled for nearly 10 more flights during the year, giving the company plenty of opportunities to hit -- and possibly even surpass -- its target 70% landing rate.
A used Falcon 9 rocket. Image source: SpaceX.
For SpaceX, getting to the point it can regularly land its rockets is critical. Longer term, SpaceX hopes it can reuse its rockets -- a feat that would dramatically decrease the cost of spaceflight, and potentially even totally disrupt the entire space industry. Manufacturing a Falcon 9 costs around $60 million. Achieving reusability, therefore, would provide significant savings for the company, and enable it to undercut all competition by ahuge sum.
SpaceX has said it plans to reuse Falcon 9 for the first time later this year. Landing a reused rocket would give the company a chance to achieve yet another critical milestone toward regular reusability.
With another landing to add to its track record, SpaceX's growing ability to stick these experimental landings certainly makes an age of reusable rockets look more realistic than ever.
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