Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Falcon Has Landed: SpaceX Launches and Lands Its Rocket Successfully

Falcon 9 first stage approaching Landing Zone 1. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX sent a Falcon 9 rocket soaring toward orbit Monday night with 11 OG2 small communications satellites for the ORBCOMM company, its first mission since an accident last summer. Then in an even more astounding feat, it landed the 15-story leftover booster back on Earth safely. It was the first time an unmanned rocket returned to land vertically at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and represented a tremendous success for SpaceX. The company led by billionaire Elon Musk is striving for reusability to drive launch costs down and open up space to more people. "Welcome back, baby!" Musk tweeted after touchdown.

In a scene resembling a launch video running in reverse, the booster quickly dropped out of a cloudy sky atop a jet of flame from one of its Merlin 1D engines, heralded by twin sonic booms that rumbled across Florida's Space Coast. Cheers erupted in company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, as the stage settled to a smooth touchdown.

In another first, the Falcon 9 used colder, denser-than-usual liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants, a significant upgrade allowing the booster's nine first-stage engines to generate more power, increasing their combined liftoff thrust from 1.3 million pounds to 1.5 million, or 170,000 pounds of thrust per engine.

The launch, first-stage landing and satellite deployments all appeared to proceed without a hitch, a welcome success for a company returning to flight after a disheartening failure.

"Everything we've seen thus far in the mission appears to be perfect," Musk said in a conference call with journalists. "The satellites were deployed right on target and the Falcon 9 booster came back and landed. Looks like almost dead center on the landing pad. ... As far as we can see right now, it was absolutely perfect. We could not have asked for a better mission."

The Falcon 9 launch was the second and final launch of ORBCOMM OG2 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The OG2 is a commercial satellite network uses low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to provide reliable and cost-effective M2M communications to and from in the most remote areas of the world.

Falcon 9 was launched at 8:29 p.m. EST and quickly climbed away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The first stage engines fired for about two minutes and 20 seconds and shut down, followed seconds later by stage separation. The single Merlin 1D engine in the rocket's second stage then ignited to continue to push to orbit, burning for about eight minutes to lift the 11-satellite payload out of the discernible atmosphere.

Five minutes after that, the Orbcomm satellites were deployed one at a time in a preliminary 398-mile-high orbit tilted 47 degrees to the equator.

“Today marks a significant milestone for our company. We’d like to thank our vendors and partners for their cooperation in this effort,” said Marc Eisenberg, ORBCOMM’s Chief Executive Officer. “I’d also like to commend the ORBCOMM team for their hard work and dedication in making our second OG2 mission a success. Lastly, I’d like to congratulate SpaceX on making history by landing the Falcon 9’s reusable Stage one booster from a record altitude. It’s an exciting day for all of us in the space industry.”

Falcon 9 rocket launches with ORBCOMM’s OG2 satellites on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 rocket launches with ORBCOMM’s OG2 satellites on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

ORBCOMM’s OG2 satellites are far more advanced than its current OG1 satellites, designed to provide current and future subscribers with significant enhancements, such as faster message delivery, larger message sizes and better coverage at higher latitudes, while significantly increasing network capacity. In addition, the OG2 satellites are equipped with an AIS payload to receive and report transmissions from AIS-equipped vessels for ship tracking and other maritime navigational and safety efforts, increasing asset visibility and the probability of detection for ORBCOMM’s AIS customers.

A major highlight of the mission was the return to Earth of the spent first stage. Just after separation two minutes and 24 seconds into flight, the stage flipped around for the first of three rocket firings to slow its forward motion, dropping back into the atmosphere tail first.

Then just nine minutes following the launch was the first-ever successful landing of the Falcon 9's first stage booster at Landing Zone 1 (formerly Complex 13) at 8:38 p.m. EST.

"Today clearly placed the exclamation mark on 2015, by closing out another successful year for the Eastern Range in historic fashion," said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander and launch decision authority. "This launch and flyback speaks volumes to the hard work this team puts in every single day driving innovation and success. This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can't even begin to describe the excitement the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing."

The booster's flight computer was programmed to head for a landing at an abandoned Atlas ICBM launch complex at the Air Force station.

Before Monday's flight, SpaceX had carried out two attempts to land a Falcon 9 first stage on an off-shore barge, demonstrating the booster's ability to autonomously slow down, re-enter the atmosphere and descend to a powered, tail-first landing.

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