WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. released an 80-second video July 22 showing the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage making a “soft landing” in the Atlantic Ocean following the July 14 launch of six Orbcomm satellites into low Earth orbit.
With a pair of geostationary-orbit-bound launches next up on the manifest — both for Hong Kong-based satellite telecommunications fleet operator AsiaSat — SpaceX said it will take a short break from additional booster recovery testing until a planned mid-September launch of a cargo-laden Dragon capsule to the international space station. That water landing attempt, which SpaceX says has only a “low probability of success,” will be Falcon 9’s final such attempt before the Hawthorne, California-based company tries later this year to land the booster on a solid surface — either terra firma or a floating platform, SpaceX said in a statement accompanying the video.
The Orbcomm mission marked the second time SpaceX has guided the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster to a near-zero velocity splashdown with landing legs deployed.
SpaceX says the July 14 test confirmed that Falcon 9’s liquid-oxygen and -kerosene-fueled booster “is able consistently to reenter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs and touch down at near zero velocity.”
The video, which SpaceX posted on YouTube and shared via Twitter, shows a first-stage re-entry burn followed by a landing burn before the booster’s landing legs deploy just prior to splashdown. The booster then tips over horizontally, as expected. Much of the video footage is partially obscured by what appears to be ice and water buildup on the onboard camera’s housing, something SpaceX says it is taking steps to mitigate for future launches.
“At this point, we are highly confident of being able to land successfully on a floating launch pad or back at the launch site and refly the rocket with no required refurbishment,” SpaceX said in its statement. “However, our next couple launches are for very high velocity geostationary satellite missions, which don’t allow enough residual propellant for landing. In the longer term, missions like that will fly on Falcon Heavy, but until then Falcon 9 will need to fly in expendable mode.”
SpaceX is slated to launch Asiasat 8 in early August followed by Asiasat 6 later that month. Those missions will mark the 11th and 12th flights of the Falcon 9. The rocket’s planned 13th launch is targeted for mid-September, when SpaceX is due to make its fourth paid cargo run to the space station for NASA.
Regardless of whether the water landing to be attempted following that launch succeeds, SpaceX said flights 14 and 15 — currently, another Orbcomm launch and a geostationary-transfer-orbit-bound launch of Turkmenistan’s TurkmenSat-1 satellite — “will attempt to land on a solid surface with an improved probability of success.”