SpaceX Launch A Success, But Ship Landing Another Near Miss - UPDATE
SpaceX successfully launched the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA today. The company made another attempt to land the rocket's first stage on an autonomous drone ship out at sea, but that failed like previous attempts. Its one landing success was last month, on land.
Getting Jason-3 into the correct orbit was the primary objective of the launch and that appeared to go flawlessly. The launch pad was enshrouded by fog, but that was not a launch constraint and liftoff was on time at 1:42 pm ET (10:42 am local time at the launch site). The first and second stages of the Falcon 9 performed nominally and the spacecraft separated and its solar panels deployed as planned.
Jason-3 is a joint project among NOAA and NASA on the U.S. side, and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat) and the French space agency, CNES, on the European side. It is the fourth in a series of experimental and now operational spacecraft to measure the height of the ocean's surface that began with Topex-Poseidon (1992), followed by Jason-1 (2001) and Jason-2 (2008). The launch of Jason-3 was delayed several times, making today's success that much more of a relief to scientists who rely on this type of data.
SpaceX's attempt to land the first stage on its Just Read the Instructions autonomous spaceport drone ship (often incorrectly referred to as a barge) was a secondary objective, but of at least as much interest to space enthusiasts. The company's successful landing last month on terra firma at Cape Canaveral, FL generated a lot of media attention. Its two previous attempts to land on drone ships failed in January and April 2015. As Musk explained in a series of tweets today, landing on a ship at sea is more difficult than on land, but the fundamental failure today appears to be related to one of the four landing legs not locking into place. SpaceX later released a video of the landing on Instagram.
The landings are related to Musk's goal of developing reusable rockets that he anticipates will lead to lower launch costs. The economics of reusable launch vehicles is very controversial, with NASA's space shuttle used as an example of why reusability may not yield such results. The costs of refurbishing the space shuttle after each use were so high and the number of launches per year so low that launch costs never came down. The space shuttle was a very complex vehicle, however, and its relevance to a simpler rocket like the Falcon 9 is unclear.
Note: This article, published on January 17, was updated on January 18 with the link to the video of the landing.
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