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21 Dec 15. SpaceX breakthrough with Falcon rocket return. Elon Musk’s SpaceX marked the first flight of its Falcon 9 rocket since a June explosion in spectacular fashion when it succeeded for the first time in returning to earth a booster rocket that had deployed satellites into space. Amid deafening cheers from employees watching in the company’s mission control room on Monday, SpaceX returned the first stage of the rocket to a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, around 10 minutes after it had lifted off. The mission was carrying 11 small satellites into orbit for Orbcomm, the satellite communications company.
SpaceX hopes that the ability to reuse rockets could help significantly to reduce the cost of space launches, which have been high partly because rockets were used only once and discarded in the sea. The rocket’s second stage went on successfully to deploy all the satellites into orbit.
The landing at Cape Canaveral — during which the rocket landed gracefully on a series of landing legs that had helped to slow it during the descent — marks SpaceX’s first successful return of a rocket in reusable condition after three failed attempts at landing rockets on barges at sea.
The success was all the sweeter for the company, coming less than six months after it faced the greatest setback in its history when a Falcon 9 exploded 45km above the Atlantic just over two minutes after taking off from Cape Canaveral.
The company has undertaken a comprehensive reshaping of its processes to avoid a repeat of the June crash, which resulted from the breaking of a strut inside part of the rocket.
“This has been a wildly successful return to flight for SpaceX,” a commentator on the company’s webcast of the launch and retrieval said. “We made history today by landing a stage of our rocket back on land.”
SpaceX faced a far tougher challenge in retrieving a rocket that had flown out over the Atlantic to launch the satellites than Blue Origin, the space launch company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, faced when it succeeded for the first time in retrieving a rocket after space flight on November 23.
Blue Origin’s rocket flew straight up into space and back down, specifically to test the technology for retrieving the rocket. The Falcon 9 had to undertake a far more complex series of manoeuvres to return to Florida.
Mr Bezos wrote on Twitter after the successful landing: “Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!”
The retrieval of the booster marks the fulfilment of a goal that rocket engineers have been pursuing almost since the dawn of space exploration.
The only previous reusable space launch vehicle — the US’s Space Shuttle — proved to need far more reconstruction between flights to repair damage caused during atmospheric re-entry than anticipated when it was initially planned in the 1960s.
SpaceX hopes that the cost reductions resulting from reuse could help it to bring down the average cost of its launches.
The company already charges the US government less than $100m per launch, against the roughly $160m charged by United Launch Alliance, its only competitor for US national security launches.
Shortly after the rocket’s return and the satellites’ deployment, Mr Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive, said on Twitter that he was heading to the landing area to see the returned rocket.
“Welcome back, baby!” he wrote. (Source: FT.com)
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