SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster accomplished a delicate maneuver after a glowing predawn launch from Cape Canaveral on Saturday, turning around at hypersonic speeds and autonomously navigating its away to a modified barge the size of a football field hidden in darkness beneath a blanket of low clouds, before it crashed — and presumably broke up — on the ship.
SpaceX officials described the landing attempt as purely experimental, but it marked a key step in the company’s long-running effort to make a rocket that can be reused cheaply. All existing launchers drop their spent rocket parts back to Earth and are written off after each flight.
Such a breakthrough could dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight, SpaceX says.
The pencil-shaped Falcon 9 rocket stage slowed down from a top speed of nearly 3, 000 mph at the edge of space and descended toward SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship — a specially-outfitted cargo barge — in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral.
Before Saturday’s launch, SpaceX likened the maneuver to “trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm.”
As the Falcon 9’s upper stage propelled a cargo-laden Dragon supply ship into orbit heading for the International Space Station, the 14-story booster had to fire a subset of its nine Merlin 1D engines three times, first to put it on course for the drone ship.
A second burn was supposed to slow down the booster for re-entry back into the atmosphere. The third and final engine firing was designed as a braking burn for a controlled vertical touchdown on four landing legs that were to deploy on final approach to the vessel.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, said on Twitter that the Falcon 9 booster made it to the drone ship but had a hard landing. A later tweet implied the rocket broke apart on impact.
At least the first two of the descent burns had to go nearly perfectly for the first stage to reach the drone ship. SpaceX officials did not release any more details or imagery of the landing.
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