Image caption Falcon 9: The lower part of the rocket - its first-stage - will eventually carry landing gear
Have we witnessed the beginning of a revolution in rocketry?
The new vehicle has been given the additional performance it needs to start lofting commercial telecoms spacecraft and other payloads, and nearly all of these modifications appear to work just fine.
But it's what happened to part of the rocket after it had completed the primary mission goals - as it fell to Earth - that really has everyone talking.
Normally, the first-stage of a rocket – the segment that gets it up off the ground – is discarded at altitude, whereupon it begins a destructive dive back through the atmosphere.
Aerodynamic forces tear the tumbling object apart. This is the history of rocketry – everything is expendable.
SpaceX, though, has plans to try to recover these stages in good working order, to refurbish them and to put them back on the launch pad.
If the company can succeed, it would have a major impact on the cost of access to space. Expendable rockets would become reusable. Parts of them, certainly.
To this end, Sunday’s first-stage was commanded to reignite three of its nine engines after separation from the rocket’s upper-stage in an attempt to slow its return to Earth.
Then, as the stage got closer to the Pacific Ocean, it fired up a fourth engine to limit the descent speed still further.
SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk promises to post video on the web later this week showing what happened.
Although the stage lost some stability as it approached the water, the entrepreneur expressed great satisfaction with the way the experiment went.If things go super-well then we will be able to refly a Falcon 9 stage before the end of next yearElon Musk, SpaceX CEO
“In this case, the boost stage did not have landing gear, which helps essentially to stabilise the stage like fins on an aircraft.
“The stage actually ended up spinning to a degree that was greater than we could control with the gas thrusters, and it centrifuged the propellant. It caused the boost stage to run out of propellant before hitting the water. So it hit the water relatively hard.
“We’ve recovered portions of the stage, but the most important thing is we believe we now have all the pieces of the puzzle.”
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