Falcon 9 launches Jason-3 satellite but landing attempt fails

by

Updated 11:45 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched an ocean science satellite Jan. 17, although an attempt to land the rocket’s first stage on a ship apparently failed.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 1:42 p.m. Eastern. The vehicle’s upper stage placed the Jason-3 spacecraft into a parking orbit nine minutes after launch, and the spacecraft separated from the upper stage 56 minutes after liftoff, after a second, brief burn by the upper stage.

The status of a secondary objective of the launch, the landing of the rocket’s first stage, was not immediately known. A video feed from the company’s “droneship,” located nearly 300 kilometers downrange from the launch site, cut out seconds before the stage was to attempt a landing.

A SpaceX spokesman said on the company’s webcast of the launch a short time later that the first stage was on target to land on the ship, but came in too hard. “It looks like one of the landing legs may have broken as we touched down on the droneship,” he said. “Unfortunately we are not standing upright on the droneship at the moment.”

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk later tweeted that a problem with a landing leg, and not a hard landing, caused the vehicle to topple. “Touchdown speed was OK, but a leg lockout didn’t latch, so it tipped over after landing,” he said.

Musk later tweeted a photo of debris of the Falcon 9 first stage on the droneship. “Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time!” he said. “Won’t be last RUD [rapid unscheduled disassembly], but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing.”

Late Jan. 17, Musk posted a brief video showing the landing. In the video, the stage appears to make a successful landing on the ship, only to topple over when one of four landing legs gives way. Musk speculated that ice buildup, linked to fog that socked in the launch site in the hours leading up to launch, may have kept the leg from locking properly.

Debris from the Falcon 9 first stage that attempted a landing on a ship in the Pacific Ocean after launch Jan. 17. Credit: Elon Musk
Debris from the Falcon 9 first stage that attempted a landing on a ship in the Pacific Ocean after launch Jan. 17. Credit: Elon Musk

The launch was the first Falcon 9 mission for SpaceX from Vandenberg since the September 2013 launch of the first Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, carrying the Canadian Cassiope satellite. This mission is also the last launch of the Falcon 9 v1.1, as SpaceX switches to an upgraded version that first flew in December.

The launch was also the first SpaceX launch under NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP), which contracts for the launch of NASA-sponsored spacecraft separately from the agency’s commercial cargo and crew programs. That gave the agency oversight into launch preparations, including the investigation into the June 2015 failure of a Falcon 9 carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft.

NASA LSP carried out its own investigation into the launch failure. “We had the SpaceX investigation and the LSP investigation. They both came together very well,” said Akash Vangani, NASA LSP certification manager, in a NASA TV interview Jan. 17. “There were a number of things that were found throughout both investigations that we had to resolve and mitigate, which led to quite a few hardware changes over the past few months.”

Jason-3 is the latest in a series of ocean monitoring satellites dating back more than two decades. The mission is a joint venture of several agencies in the U.S. and Europe, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the French space agency CNES and European weather satellite operator Eumetsat.

The 510-kilogram satellite will be placed into a near-polar orbit, ultimately at an altitude of 1,336 kilometers, the same orbit as that used by the current Jason-2 spacecraft. Jason-3 will work in conjunction with Jason-2 for at least six months to calibrate data from the new spacecraft’s instruments.

Jason-3 is designed to continue the collection of data on ocean surface conditions that play an essential role in both weather forecasting and climate monitoring. “Jason information is incredibly useful, especially to NOAA, because it allows us to not only track the sea level change that is impacting our coastal features right now, but also to help forecast extreme weather,” said Laury Miller, Jason-3 program scientist at NOAA, during a pre-launch press conference Jan. 15.