Encouraged by the soft landing of a Falcon 9 rocket's first stage in the Atlantic Ocean after liftoff April 18, SpaceX plans a series of stage retrieval tests over the next few months, but only on missions where the launcher has enough leftover fuel to accomplish the complicated re-entry maneuvers required to safely return a rocket to Earth.
A still frame from a video recording showing the Falcon 9 first stage descending toward the Atlantic Ocean with landing legs deployed. Photo credit: SpaceX
SpaceX hopes the experiments will lead to returning a rocket intact to a engine-assisted touchdown at Cape Canaveral by the end of the year.
Expanding on updates posted to Twitter shortly after the launch, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said Friday the first stage flew itself back to Earth after completing a nearly three-minute burn to start a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Data show the first stage, powered by nine Merlin 1D engines, reached the sea in one piece and under control, apparently softly splashing down in the Atlantic at near zero velocity, Musk said.
"I'm happy to confirm that we were able to do a soft landing of the Falcon 9 boost stage in the Atlantic, " Musk said in a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington. "All the data we received back shows it did a soft landing and was in a healthy condition after that."
SpaceX released a video and image frames Tuesday from a camera mounted on the rocket, and it appears to show the first stage descending toward the ocean with landing legs deployed as the engine plume kicks up mist from the sea. SpaceX has asked video experts to try to improve the noisy footage in a crowd-sourcing effort.
Musk described the soft landing accomplishment as a "huge milestone for SpaceX and certainly for the space industry."
SpaceX claims the cost for a commercial launch on a Falcon 9 rocket is approximately $60 million. Musk said a fully reusable rocket, which also hinges on streamlined refurbishment and quick turnaround between flights, could cut launch costs a hundred-fold.
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