SpaceX Adopts Lessons Learned From Multiple Booster Landings – Test Fires Recovered 1st Stage: Videos

SpaceX completed the first full duration test firing of a landed first booster on July 28, 2016 on a test stand at their rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.
SpaceX completed the first full duration test firing of a landed first stage booster on July 28, 2016 on a test stand at their rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s daring dream of rocket recycling and reusability is getting closer and closer to reality with each passing day. After a breathtaking series of experimental flight tests aimed at safely landing the firms spent Falcon 9 first stages on land and at sea over the past half year the bold effort achieved another major milestone by just completing the first full duration test firing of one of those landed boosters.

On Thursday, July 28, SpaceX engineers successful conducted a full duration static engine test firing of the 156-foot-tall (47-meter) recovered Falcon 9 first stage booster while held down on a test stand at the company’s rocket development test facility in McGregor, Texas. The engines fired up for about two and a half minutes.

The SpaceX team has been perfecting the landing techniques by adopting lessons learned after each landing campaign attempt.

What are the lessons learned so far from the first stage landings and especially the hard landings? Are there any changes being made to the booster structure? How well did the landing burn scenario perform?

During SpaceX’s recent CRS-9 launch campaign media briefings at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on July 18, I asked SpaceX VP Hans Koenigsmann for some insight.

“We learned a lot … from the landings,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of Flight Reliability, told Universe Today during the recent media briefings for the SpaceX CRS-9 space station cargo resupply launch on July 18.

“There are no structural changes first of all.”

“The key thing is to protect the engines,” Koenigsmann elaborated, while they are in flight and “during reentry”.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage is outfitted with four landing legs at the base and four grid fins at the top to conduct the landing attempts.

“In general I think the landing concept with the legs, and the number of burns and the way we perform those seems to work OK,” Koenigsmann told Universe Today.

After separating from the second stage at hypersonic speeds of up to some 4000 mph, the first stage engines are reignited to reverse course and do a boost backburn back to the landing site and slow the rocket down for a soft landing, via supersonic retropulsion.

Proper engine performance is critical to enabling a successful touchdown.

“The key thing is to protect the engines – and make sure that they start up well [in space during reentry],” Koenigsmann explained. “And in particular the hot trajectory, so to speak, like the ones that comes in after a fast payload, like the geo-transfer payload basically.”

“Those engines need to be protected so that they start up in the proper way. That’s something that we learned.”

Elon Musk’s goal is to radically slash the cost of launching rockets and access to space via rocket reuse – in a way that will one day lead to his vision of a ‘City on Mars.’

SpaceX hopes to refly a once flown booster later this year, sometime in the Fall, using the ocean landed Falcon from NASA’s CRS-8 space station mission launched in April, says Koenigsmann.

But the company first has to prove that the used vehicle can survive the extreme and unforgiving stresses of the violent spaceflight environment before they can relaunch it.

The July 28 test firing is part of that long life endurance testing and involved igniting all nine used first stage Merlin 1D engines housed at the base of a used landed rocket.

The Falcon 9 first stage generates over 1.71 million pounds of thrust when all nine Merlin engines fire up on the test stand for a duration of up to three minutes – the same as for an actual launch.

Watch the engine test in this SpaceX video:

Video Caption: Falcon 9 first stage from May 2016 JCSAT mission was test fired, full duration, at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas rocket development facility on July 28, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

The used 15 story Falcon booster had successfully carried out an intact soft landing on an ocean going platform after launching a Japanese commercial telecommunications satellite only two months ago on May 6 of this year.

Just 10 minutes after launching the JCSAT-14 telecom satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), the used first stage relit a first stage Merlin 1D engine.

It conducted a series of three recovery burns to maneuver the rocket to a designated landing spot at sea or on land and rapidly decelerate it from supersonic speeds for a propulsive soft landing, intact and upright using a quartet of landing legs that deploy in the final moments before a slow speed touchdown.

However, although the landing was upright and intact, this particular landing was also classed as a ‘hard landing’ because the booster landed at a higher velocity and Merlin 1D first stage engines did sustain heavy damage as seen in up close photos and acknowledged by Musk.

“Most recent rocket took max damage, due to v high entry velocity. Will be our life leader for ground tests to confirm others are good,” Musk tweeted at the time.

Nevertheless it all worked out spectacularly and this was the first one to be recovered from the much more demanding, high velocity trajectory delivering a satellite to GTO.

Indeed prior to liftoff, Musk had openly doubted a successful landing outcome, since this first stage was flying faster and at a higher altitude at the time of separation from the second stage and thus was much more difficult to slow down and maneuver back to the ocean based platform compared to ISS missions, for example.

So although this one cannot be reflown, it still serves another great purpose for engineers seeking to determining the longevity of the booster and its various components – as now audaciously demonstrated by the July 28 engine test stand firing.

“We learned a lot even on the missions where things go wrong with the landing, everything goes well on the main mission of course,” said Koenigsmann.

Altogether SpaceX has successfully soft landed and recovered five of their first stage Falcon 9 boosters intact and upright since the history making first ever land landing took place just seven months ago in December 2015 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The most recent launch and landing occurred last week on July 18, 2016 during the dramatic midnight blastoff of the SpaceX CRS-9 commercial cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) under contract for NASA.

See the stupendous events unfold in up close photos and videos herein.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing  rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Following each Falcon 9 launch and landing attempt, SpaceX engineers assess the voluminous and priceless data gathered, analyze the outcome and adopt the lessons learned.

Moments before dramatic touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage at Landing Zone-1 (LX-1) accompanied by sonic booms after launching Dragon CRS-9 supply ship to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 12:45 a.m., bound for the International Space Station (ISS).   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Moments before dramatic touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage at Landing Zone-1 (LX-1) accompanied by sonic booms after launching Dragon CRS-9 supply ship to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 12:45 a.m., bound for the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CRS-9 marks only the second time SpaceX has attempted a land landing of the 15 story tall first stage booster back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station – at the location called Landing Zone 1 (LZ 1).

Watch this exquisitely detailed up close video showing the CRS-9 first stage landing at LZ 1, as shot by space colleague Jeff Seibert from the ITL causeway at CCAFS- which dramatically concluded with multiple shockingly loud sonic booms rocketing across the Space Coast and far beyond and waking hordes of sleepers:

Video caption: This was the second terrestrial landing of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster on July 18, 2016. It had just launched the CRS9 Dragon mission towards the ISS. The landing took place at LZ1, formerly known as Pad 13, located on CCAFS and caused a triple sonic boom heard 50 miles away. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The history making first ever ground landing successfully took place at Landing Zone 1 (LZ 1) on Dec. 22, 2015 as part of the ORBCOMM-2 mission. Landing Zone 1 is built on the former site of Space Launch Complex 13, a U.S. Air Force rocket and missile testing range.

SpaceX also successfully recovered first stages three times in a row at sea this year on an ocean going drone ship barge using the company’s OCISLY Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) on April 8, May 6 and May 27.

OCISLY is generally stationed approximately 400 miles (650 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. The barge arrives back in port at Port Canaveral several days after the landing, depending on many factors like weather, port permission and the state of the rocket.

However while trying to extend the touchdown streak to 4 in a row during the latest drone ship landing attempt following the June 15 Eutelsat telecom launch to GTO, the booster basically crashed because it descended too quickly due to insufficient thrust from the Merlin descent engines.

The rocket apparently ran out of liquid oxygen fuel in the final moments before touchdown, hit hard, tipped over and pancaked onto the deck.

“Looks like early liquid oxygen depletion caused engine shutdown just above the deck,” Musk explained via twitter at the time.

“Looks like thrust was low on 1 of 3 landing engines. High g landings v sensitive to all engines operating at max.”

Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch.  Credit: Julian Leek
Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch. Credit: Julian Leek

“We learned a lot even on the mission where things go wrong with the landing,” Koenigsmann explained. “Everything goes well on the main mission of course.”

“That’s actually something where you have successful deploy and the landing doesn’t quite work- and yet its the landing that gets all the attention.”

“But even on those landings we learned a lot. In particular on the last landing [from Eutelsat launch] we learned a lot.”

“We believe we found a way to operationally protect these engines and to make it safer for them to start up – and to come up to full thrust and stay at full thrust.”

What exactly does “protecting the engines” mean “in flight?”

“Yes I mean protecting the engines during reentry,” Koenigsmann told me.

“That’s when the engines get hot. We enter with the engines facing the flow. So its basically the engines directly exposed to the hot flow. And that’s when you need to protect the engines and the gases and liquids that are in the engines. To make sure that nothing boils off and does funny things.”

“So all in all these series of drone ship landings has been extremely successful, even when we didn’t recover all the first stages [fully intact].”

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing SpaceX and CRS-9 mission coverage where he reported onsite direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Watch my launch pad video of the CRS-9 launch:

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off with Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship bound for the International Space Station on July 18, 2016 at 12:45 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen in this up close video from Mobius remote camera positioned at pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this CRS-9 launch and landing video compilation from space colleague Mike Wagner:

Video caption: SpaceX CRS-9 Launch and Landing compilation on 7/18/2016. Local papers reported 911 calls for a loud explosion up to 75 miles away. This sonic boom seemed louder than the first landing at the Cape in Dec. 2015. Credit: USLaunchReport

Prelaunch view of SpaceX Falcon 9 awaiting launch on May 27, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Prelaunch view of SpaceX Falcon 9 awaiting launch on May 27, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Lane Hermann
First stage booster with landing legs removed from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
First stage booster with landing legs removed from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
Proud fisherman displays ultra fresh ‘catch of the day’ as ultra rare species of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket floats by simultaneously on barge in Port Canaveral, Fl, on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Proud fisherman displays ultra fresh ‘catch of the day’ as ultra rare species of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket floats by simultaneously on barge in Port Canaveral, Fl, on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 basks in nighttime glow after arriving into Port Canaveral on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 basks in nighttime glow after arriving into Port Canaveral on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Pancaked SpaceX Falcon Pulls into Port After Trio of Spectacular Landings; Photos/Videos

Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch to orbit.  Credit: Julian Leek
Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch to orbit. Credit: Julian Leek

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — The pancaked leftovers of a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage from last week’s successful commercial launch but hard landing at sea, pulled silently and without fanfare into its home port over the weekend – thereby ending a string of three straight spectacular and upright soft ocean landings over the past two months.

The residue of the Falcon sailed into home port at Port Canaveral, Fl under cover of darkness and covered by a big blue tarp late Saturday night, June 18, at around 9 p.m. EDT.

It arrived atop SpaceX’s ASDS drone ship landing platform known as “Of Course I Still Love You” or “OCISLY” – that had already been dispatched several days prior to the June 15 morning launch from the Florida space coast.

Pancaked SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived at night into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship on June 18 after hard landing at sea following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch to orbit.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Pancaked SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived at night into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship on June 18 after hard landing at sea following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch to orbit. Credit: Lane Hermann

And check out this exquisite hi res aerial video of the tarp ‘Blowing in the Wind’ – showing an even more revealing view of the remains of the Falcon 9 after much of the tarp was blown away by whipping sunshine state winds.

Video Caption: SpaceX booster remains from Eutelsat-ABS launch seen in Port Canaveral on 06-19-2016 the day after arrival. The wind blew off part of the tarps covering what is left of Eutelsat-ABS booster. Credit: USLaunchReport

Recovering and eventually reusing the 156 foot tall Falcon 9 first stage to loft new payloads for new paying customers lies at the heart of the visionary SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s strategy of radically slashing future launch costs and enabling a space faring civilization.

The latest attempt to launch and propulsively land the Falcon booster on a platform a sea took place on Wednesday, June 15 after the on time liftoff at 10:29 a.m. EDT (2:29 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Successful SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of ABS/Eutelsat-2 launch on June 15, 2016, at 10:29 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Successful SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of ABS/Eutelsat-2 launch on June 15, 2016, at 10:29 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 229 foot-tall (70 meter) Falcon 9 successfully accomplished its primary goal of delivering a pair of roughly 5000 pound commercial telecommunications satellites to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) for Eutelsat based in Paris and Asia Broadcast Satellite of Bermuda and Hong Kong.

The Falcon 9 delivered the Boeing-built EUTELSAT 117 West B and ABS-2A telecommunications satellites to orbits for Latin American and Asian customers.

“Ascent phase & satellites look good,” SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk tweeted.

After first stage separation, SpaceX engineers attempted the secondary and experimental goal of soft landing the 15 story tall first stage booster nine minutes after liftoff, on an ocean going ‘droneship’ platform for later reuse.

OCISLY was stationed approximately 420 miles (680 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

However, for the first time in four tries SpaceX was not successful in safely landing and recovering the booster intact and upright.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL,  atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The booster basically crashed on the drone ship because it descended too quickly due to insufficient thrust from the descent engines.

The rocket apparently ran out of fuel in the final moments before droneship touchdown.

“Looks like early liquid oxygen depletion caused engine shutdown just above the deck,” Musk explained via a twitter post.

The first stage is fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellant.

Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch.  Credit: Julian Leek
Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch to orbit. Credit: Julian Leek

A SpaceX video shows a huge cloud of black smoke enveloping the booster in the final moments before the planned touchdown – perhaps soot from the burning RP-1 propellant.

In the final moments the booster is seen tipping over and crashing with unrestrained force onto the droneship deck – crushing and flattening the boosters long round core and probably the nine Merlin 1D first stage engines as well.

“But booster rocket had a RUD on droneship,” Musk noted. RUD stands for rapid unscheduled disassembly which usually means it was destroyed on impact. Although in this case it may be more a case of being crushed by the fall instead of a fuel related explosion.

“Looks like thrust was low on 1 of 3 landing engines. High g landings v sensitive to all engines operating at max,” Musk elaborated.

SpaceX Falocn 9 streaks to orbit across the Florida skies after Eutelsat/ABS 2A comsat  launch  on June 15, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falocn 9 streaks to orbit across the Florida skies after Eutelsat/ABS 2A comsat launch on June 15, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The June 15 crash follows three straight landing successes at sea – on April 8, May 6 and mostly recently on May 27 after the Thaicom-8 launch. See my onsite coverage here of the Thaicom-8 boosters return to Port Canaveral on the OCISLY droneship.

Yet this outcome was also not unexpected due to the high energy of the rocket required to deliver the primary payload to the GTO orbit.

“As mentioned at the beginning of the year, I’m expecting ~70% success rate on landings for the year,” Musk explains.

And keep in mind that the rocket recovery and recycling effort is truly a science experiment on a grand scale financed by SpaceX – and its aiming for huge dividends down the road.

“2016 is the year of experimentation.”

It’s a road that Musk hopes will one day lead to a human “City on Mars.”

Pancaked SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived at night into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship on June 18 after hard landing at sea following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch to orbit.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Pancaked SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived at night into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship on June 18 after hard landing at sea following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch to orbit. Credit: Lane Hermann

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Watch these incredible launch videos showing many different vantage points:

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch video compilation – Eutelsat and ABS satellites launched on 06/15/2016 from Pad 40 CCAFS. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off with Eutelsat 117W/ABS-2A electric propulsion comsats on June 15, 2016 at 10:29 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen in this up close video from Mobius remote camera positioned at pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Mars at Closest Earth Approach Over SpaceX Recovered Falcon 9 at Sea – Photo

Mars Close Approach over recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 atop droneship at sea on June 1, 2016 as seen from Jetty Park Pier in Port Canaveral, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mars Close Approach over recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 atop droneship at sea on June 1, 2016 as seen from Jetty Park Pier in Port Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

PORT CANAVERAL, FL – As you may have heard its Mars opposition season. What you may not have heard is that Mars made its closest Earth approach high in the Sunshine states nighttime skies coincidentally at the same time as a sea landed SpaceX Falcon 9 was visible just offshore floating on the horizon below.

Rather miraculously this regular natural occurrence of the dance of the planets Earth and Mars making a close embrace as they orbit around our Sun, was taking place simultaneously with a most unnatural event – namely the return of a used SpaceX Falcon 9 landed on a platform at sea that was briefly hugging the Florida coastline.

And better yet you can see them celebrating this first-of-its-kind celestial event together in the photo above of ‘Mars Close Approach over Falcon’ – captured by this author around 11 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 1 from the rock wall along Jetty Park Pier in Port Canaveral, Fl.

By sheer coincidence, the Red Planet was making its closest approach to Earth of this orbital cycle just as the most recently launched and recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster was arriving just offshore of Cocoa Beach and the Florida Space Coast earlier this week.

As luck would have it, when I ventured out to watch the boosters hoped for nighttime arrival from Jetty Park Pier in Port Canaveral on Wednesday, June 1, I noticed that Mars and the floating Falcon 9 were lined up almost perfectly.

Mars is visible at the head of the large constellation Scorpius.

The Falcon 9 was standing atop the droneship upon which it had landed on May 27 while it was stationed approximately 420 miles (680 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida, surrounded by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 began its rapid journey to space and back roaring to life at 5:39 p.m. EDT last Friday, May 27, from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, ascending into sky blue sunshine state skies.

The Falcon 9 was carrying the Thaicom-8 telecommunications satellite to orbit.

On Wednesday night, June 1, Mars was high in the southern night sky, shining brightly almost directly over the spent Falcon 9 booster sailing some 3 miles (5 km) offshore of Cocoa Beach.

Thankfully the weather gods even cooperated by delivering crystal clear nighttime skies.

So with Mars at Opposition and Falcon 9 in view and while awaiting the droneship bringing the booster into Port Canaveral I took some exposure shots of this first totally unique opportunity.

Mars Close Approach took place on May 30, 2016. That is the point in Mars’ orbit when it comes closest to Earth.

The Red Planet was only 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers) from Earth.

“Mars reaches its highest point around midnight — about 35 degrees above the southern horizon, or one third of the distance between the horizon and overhead,” according to a NASA description and the graphic shown below.

 Mars closest approach to Earth this cycle is May 30, 2016.  That is the point in Mars' orbit when it comes closest to Earth. Mars will be at a distance of 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars closest approach to Earth this cycle is May 30, 2016. That is the point in Mars’ orbit when it comes closest to Earth. Mars will be at a distance of 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars is currently visible for much of the night.

Mars oppositions happen about every 26 months when Mars and the sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth.

The 156 foot tall Falcon 9 booster had landed atop the specially designed SpaceX ‘droneship’ named “Of Course I Still Love You” or “OCISLY” less than 9 minutes after the May 27 blastoff.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL,  atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Thaicom-8 mission marked the third time SpaceX nailed a booster landing on an ocean going platform.

But unlike the prior two sea landings, this booster came to rest at noticeable tilt.

This caused SpaceX some headaches and concern it might fall over and be destroyed in transit before reaching land.

So the booster didn’t make it back into port Wednesday night as onlookers had hoped. And SpaceX did not announce a return schedule.

It actually would up station keeping and hugging the shoreline for nearly 2 extra days while workers stabilized the booster.

Tow boat passing in front of the used SpaceX rocket waiting offshore. Credit: Julian Leek
Tow boat passing in front of the used SpaceX rocket waiting offshore. Credit: Julian Leek

The 15 story tall spent first stage was secured with multiple tie downs to the droneships deck.

Up close view of base of recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 atop droneship during arrival on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of base of recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 atop droneship during arrival on June 2, 2016 shows ties down securing booster to deck. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As I witnessed and reported here, the booster finally sailed triumphantly into the mouth of Port Canaveral around lunchtime on Thursday, June 2.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Mars and the recovered Falcon 9 actually tie in rather neatly.

The SpaceX rockets launch and recovery technology are all being developed so they will one day lead to establishing a ‘City on Mars’ – according to the SpaceX’s visionary CEO and founder Elon Musk.

Musk aims to radically slash the cost of launching future rockets by recycling them and using them to launch new payloads for new paying customers.

Musk hopes to launch humans to Mars by the mid-2020s.

And this author is also a well known Mars lover.

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Watch for Ken’s continuing on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral and the SpaceX launch pad.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, ULA Atlas rocket, Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

June 8/9: “SpaceX, ULA, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Spectacular Imagery Showcases SpaceX Thaicom Blastoff as Sea Landed Booster Sails Back to Port: Photo/Video Gallery

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Spectacular imagery showcasing SpaceX’s Thaicom blastoff on May 27 keeps rolling in as the firms newest sea landed booster sails merrily along back to its home port atop a ‘droneship’ landing platform.

Formally known as an Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) the small flat platform is eclectically named “Of Course I Still Love You” or “OCISLY” by SpaceX Founder and CEO Elon Musk and is expected back at Port Canaveral this week.

Check out this expanding launch gallery of up close photos and videos captured by local space photojournalist colleagues and myself of Friday afternoons stunning SpaceX Falcon 9 liftoff.

The imagery shows Falcon roaring to life with 1.5 million pounds of thrust from the first stage Merlin 1 D engines and propelling a 7000 pound (3,100 kilograms) commercial Thai communications satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

The recently upgraded Falcon 9 launched into sky blue sunshine state skies at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, accelerating to orbital velocity and arcing eastward over the Atlantic Ocean towards the African continent and beyond.

Relive the launch via these exciting videos recorded around the pad 40 perimeter affording a “You Are There” perspective!

They show up close and wide angle views and audio recording the building crescendo of the nine mighty Merlin 1 D engines.

Video caption: Compilation of videos of SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of Thaicom 8 on 5/27/2016 from Pad 40 on CCAFS, FL as seen from multiple cameras ringing pad and media viewing site on AF base. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Watch from the ground level weeds and a zoomed in view of the umbilicals breaking away at the moment of liftoff.

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen in this up close video from Mobius remote camera positioned at pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After the first and second stages separated as planned at about 2 minutes and 39 seconds after liftoff, the nosecone was deployed, separating into two halves at about T plus 3 minutes and 37 seconds.

Finally a pair of second stage firings delivered Thaicom-8 to orbit.

Onboard cameras captured all the exciting space action in real time.

When the Thai satellite was successfully deployed at T plus 31 minutes and 56 seconds exhuberant cheers instantly erupted from SpaceX mission control – as seen worldwide on the live webcast.

“Satellite deployed to 91,000 km apogee,” tweeted SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk.

Video caption: SpaceX – “Falcon In” “Falcon Out” – 05-27-2016 – Thaicom 8. The brand new SpaceX Falcon 9 for next launch comes thru main gate Cape Canaveral, just a few hours before Thaicom 8 launched and landed. Awesome ! Credit: USLaunchReport

Both stages of the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 are fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene which burn in the Merlin engines.

Less than nine minutes after the crackling thunder and billowing plume of smoke and fire sent the Falcon 9 and Thaicom 8 telecommunications satellite skyward, the first stage booster successfully soft landed on a platform at sea.

Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with Thaicom-8 on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: John Kraus
Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with Thaicom-8 on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: John Kraus

Having survived the utterly harsh and unforgiving rigors of demanding launch environments and a daring high velocity reentry, SpaceX engineers meticulously targeted the tiny ocean going ASDS vessel.

The diminutive ocean landing platform measures only about 170 ft × 300 ft (52 m × 91 m).

“Of Course I Still Love You” is named after a starship from a novel written by Iain M. Banks.

OCISLY was stationed approximately 420 miles (680 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida surrounded by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

Because the launch was target Thaicom-8 to GTO, the first stage was traveling at some 6000 kph at the time of separation from the second stage.

Thus the booster was subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating and a successful landing would be extremely difficult – but not impossible.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 at 5:39 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

Just 3 weeks ago SpaceX accomplished the same sea landing feat from the same type trajectory following the launch of the Japanese JCSAT-14 on May 6.

The May 6 landing was the first fully successful sea landing from a GTO launch, brilliantly accomplished by SpaceX engineers.

With a total of 4 recovered boosters, SpaceX is laying the path to rocket reusability and Musk’s dream of slashing launch costs – by 30% initially and much much more down the road.

Thaicom-8 was built by aerospace competitor Orbital ATK, based in Dulles, VA. It will support Thailand’s growing broadcast industry and will provide broadcast and data services to customers in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Thaicom-8 is the fifth operational satellite for Thaicom.

It now enters a 30-day testing phase, says Orbital ATK.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 to orbit on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom-8 to orbit on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

The Falcon 9 launch is the 5th this year for SpaceX.

Watch for Ken’s continuing on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral and the SpaceX launch pad.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with Thaicom-8 on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: John Kraus
Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with Thaicom-8 on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: John Kraus
SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch to deliver Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch to deliver Thaicom-8 communications satellite to orbit on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 aloft with Thaicom-8 communications satellite after afternoon liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on May 27, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 aloft with Thaicom-8 communications satellite after afternoon liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on May 27, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 streaks to orbit after launch on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 streaks to orbit after launch on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Prelaunch view of SpaceX Falcon 9 awaiting launch on May 27, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Prelaunch view of SpaceX Falcon 9 awaiting launch on May 27, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Lane Hermann
Streak shot of SpaceX Falcon 9 launching JCSAT-14 from 1st fully successful droneship landing on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: John Kraus
Streak shot of SpaceX Falcon 9 launching JCSAT-14 from 1st fully successful droneship landing from GTO on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: John Kraus
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
 SpaceX Falcon 9 of Thaicom 8 on May 27, 2016 from Melbourne, FL.  Credit: Melissa Bayles

SpaceX Falcon 9 of Thaicom 8 on May 27, 2016 from Melbourne, FL. Credit: Melissa Bayles
 SpaceX Falcon 9 of Thaicom 8 on May 27, 2016 from Melbourne, FL.  Credit: Melissa Bayles

SpaceX Falcon 9 of Thaicom 8 on May 27, 2016 from Melbourne, FL. Credit: Melissa Bayles

SpaceX Targets Thursday May 26 for Thai Comsat Launch and Tough Sea Landing – Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands poised for launch on May 26 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, similar to this file photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands poised for launch on May 26 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, similar to this file photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. – Just three weeks after SpaceX’s last launch from their Florida launch base, the growing and influential aerospace firm is deep into commencing their next space spectacular – targeting this Thursday, May 26, for launch of a Thai comsat followed moments later by a sea landing attempt of the booster on a tough trajectory.

SpaceX is slated to launch the Thaicom-8 telecommunications satellite atop an upgraded version of the SpaceX Falcon 9 on Thursday at 5:40 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

SpaceX is rapidly picking up the pace of rocket launches for their wide ranging base of commercial, government and military customers that is continuously expanding and reaping contracts and profits for the Hawthorne, Calif. based company.

This commercial mission involves lofting Thaicom-8 to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) for Thaicom PLC, a leading satellite operator in Asia.

This also counts as the second straight GTO launch and the second straight attempt to land a rocket on a sea based platform from the highly demanding GTO launch trajectory.

Will this mission make for 3 successful Falcon 9 1st stage booster landings in a row? Tune in and find out !!

Engineers have a two-hour window to launch the Falcon 9 and deliver Thaicom to orbit.

Thaicom-8 was built by aerospace competitor Orbital ATK, based in Dulles, VA. It will support Thailand’s growing broadcast industry and will provide broadcast and data services to customers in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa.

The Falcon 9 launch is the 5th this year for SpaceX.

You can watch the launch live via a special live webcast from SpaceX.

The SpaceX webcast will be available starting at about 20 minutes before liftoff, at approximately 5:20 a.m. EDT at SpaceX.com/webcast

The two stage Falcon 9 rocket has a two-hour launch window that extends until Thursday, May 26 at 7:40 p.m. EDT.

Thaicom-8 communications satellite built by Orbital ATK will launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 on May 26, 2016.  The satellite has delivered to the launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida in late April 2016.  Credit: Orbital ATK
Thaicom-8 communications satellite built by Orbital ATK will launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 on May 26, 2016. The satellite has delivered to the launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida in late April 2016. Credit: Orbital ATK

The path to liftoff was cleared late last night the company completed the customary pre-launch static fire test of the rocket’s first stage upgraded Merlin 1D engines for several seconds at pad 40.

The nine engines on the 229 foot tall Falcon 9 rocket generate approximately 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

Engineers monitored the test and after analyzing results declared the Falcon 9 was fit to launch Thursday afternoon.

The weather currently looks very good. Air Force meteorologists are predicting a 90 percent chance of favorable weather conditions at launch time Thursday morning with a minor concern for ground winds.

The backup launch opportunity is Friday, May 27. The weather outlooks is somewhat less promising at a 70 percent chance of favorable conditions.

After the Falcon 9 rocket delivers the satellite into its targeted geosynchronous transfer orbit it will enter a 30-day testing phase, says Orbital ATK.

Following in-orbit activation and after reaching its final orbital slot, Orbital ATK will then turn over control of the satellite to Thaicom to begin normal operations.

THAICOM 8’s orbital location will be positioned at 78.5 degrees east longitude and the satellite is designed to operate for more than 15 years.

Thaicom-8 is a Ku-band satellite that offers 24 active transponders that will deliver broadcast and data services to customers in Thailand, Southeast Asia, India and Africa.

Thaicom-8 has a mass of approximately 6,800 pounds (3,100 kilograms). It is based on Orbital ATK’s flight-proven GEOStar-2TM platform.

“We built and delivered this high-quality communications satellite for Thaicom PLC two months ahead of schedule, demonstrating our ability to manufacture reliable, affordable and innovative products that exceed expectations for our customer,” said Amer Khouri, Vice President of the Commercial Satellite Business at Orbital ATK.

“As one of Asia’s leading satellite operators, we are grateful for Thaicom’s continued confidence and look forward to more successful partnerships in the future.”

Thaicom-8 will join Thaicom-6 already in orbit. It was also designed, manufactured, integrated and tested by Orbital ATK. at the firm’s state-of-the-art satellite manufacturing facility in Dulles, Virginia.

Thaicom PLC commissioned Thaicom-8 in 2014, shortly after SpaceX launched the THAICOM 6 satellite into orbit in January 2014.

Thaicom-8 mission patch artwork.  Credit: SpaceX
Thaicom-8 mission patch artwork. Credit: SpaceX

The secondary test objective of SpaceX is to land the Falcon 9 rockets first stage on an ocean going barge several hundred miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) barge is named “Of Course I Still Love You.”

However with this mission’s GTO destination, the first stage will be subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating and a successful landing will be difficult.

Having said that and despite those hurdles, the last GTO mission landing attempt did succeed brilliantly following the May 6 JCSAT-14 launch.

Tune in to the SpaceX webcast Thursday afternoon to catch all the exciting action !!

Composite image of first stage booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.  Inset: Trio of SpaceX boosters inside pad 39A hangar. Credit: SpaceX.  Composite:  Ken Kremer
Composite image of first stage booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace. Inset: Trio of SpaceX boosters inside pad 39A hangar. Credit: SpaceX. Composite: Ken Kremer

Watch for Ken’s on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral and the SpaceX launch pad.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, ULA Atlas rocket, Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

May 25/26: “SpaceX, ULA, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Jun 2 to 5: “ULA, NRO, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Sensational Photos Show ‘Super Smooth’ Droneship Touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster – SpaceX VP

Remote camera photo from "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage landing following launch of Dragon cargo ship to ISS on CRS-8 mission. Credit: SpaceX
Remote camera photo from “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage landing following launch of Dragon cargo ship to ISS on CRS-8 mission. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has released a slew of up close photos showing the sensational “super smooth” touchdown last week of a Falcon 9 booster on a tiny droneship at sea located several hundred miles (km) off the East coast of Florida.

“This time it really went super smooth,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Flight Reliability, told Universe Today at the NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum (NEAF) held in Suffern, NY. “The rest is history almost.”

The dramatic propulsive descent and soft landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage took place last Friday, April 8 about 9 minutes after blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:43 p.m. EDT on the Dragon CRS-8 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS).

The breathtaking new photos show the boosters central Merlin 1D engine refiring to propulsively slow the first stage descent with all four landing legs unfurled and locked in place at the bottom and all four grid fins deployed at the top.

Why did it all go so well, comparing this landing to the prior attempts? Basically the return trajectory was less challenging due to the nature of the NASA payload and launch trajectory.

“We were more confident about this droneship landing,” Koenigsmann said at NEAF.

“I knew the trajectory we had [for CRS-8] was more benign, although not super benign. But certainly benigner than for what we had before on the SES-9 mission, the previous one. The [droneship] landing trajectory we had for the previous one on SES-9 was really challenging.”

“This one was relatively benign. It was really maybe as benign as for the Orbcomm launch [in December 2015] where we had the land landing.”

Read my Orbcomm story here about history’s first ever successful land landing of a spent SpaceX Falcon 9 booster.

Timelapse sequence shows dramatic landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage on "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship as captured by remote camera on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX
Timelapse sequence shows dramatic landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage on “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship as captured by remote camera on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX

The diminutive ocean landing platform measures only about 170 ft × 300 ft (52 m × 91 m). SpaceX formally dubs it an ‘Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship’ or ASDS.

The ocean going ship is named “Of Course I Still Love You” after a starship from a novel written by Iain M. Banks.

It was stationed some 200 miles off shore of Cape Canaveral, Florida surrounded by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

Remote camera photo from "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship of Falcon 9 first stage landing following launch of Dragon cargo ship to ISS on CRS-8 mission on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX
Remote camera photo from “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship of Falcon 9 first stage landing following launch of Dragon cargo ship to ISS on CRS-8 mission on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX

“The CRS-8 launch was one of the easiest ones we ever had.”

The revolutionary rocket recovery event counts as the first successful droneship landing of a rocket in history and is paving the way towards eventual rocket recycling aimed at dramatically slashing the cost of access to space.

The final moments of the 15 story tall boosters approach and hover landing was captured up close in stunning high resolution imagery recorded by multiple remote cameras set up right on the ocean going platform by SpaceX photographer Ben Cooper.

Landing the booster on land rather than at sea was actually an option this time around. But SpaceX managers wanted to try and nail a platform at sea landing to learn more and validate their calculations and projections.

“As Elon Musk said at the post-landing press conference of Friday, we could have actually come back to land- to land this one on land,” Koenigsmann elaborated.

“But we decided to land on the drone ship first to make sure that on the droneship we had worked everything out!”

“And that’s exactly what happened. So I felt this was only going out a little bit on the limb,” but not too much.”

Remote camera photo from "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship of Falcon 9 first stage landing following launch of Dragon cargo ship to ISS on CRS-8 mission on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX
Remote camera photo from “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship of Falcon 9 first stage landing following launch of Dragon cargo ship to ISS on CRS-8 mission on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX

Before the CRS-8 launch, Koenigsmann had rated the chances of a successful landing recovery rather high.

Three previous attempts by SpaceX to land on a droneship at sea were partially successful, as the stage made a pinpoint flyback to the tiny droneship, but it either hit too hard or tipped over in the final moments when a landing leg failed to fully deploy or lock in place.

“Everything went perfect with the launch,” Koengismann said. “We just still have to do the post launch data review.”

“I am really glad this went well.”

Droneship touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage on "Of Course I Still Love You" as captured by remote camera on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX
Droneship touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage on “Of Course I Still Love You” as captured by remote camera on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX

This recovered Falcon 9 booster finally arrived back into Port Canaveral, Florida four days later in the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 12 at about 1:30 a.m. EDT.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moved by crane from drone ship to an upright storage cradle on land at Port Canaveral,  Florida on April 12, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moved by crane from drone ship to an upright storage cradle on land at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

The primary goal of the Falcon 9 launch on April 8 was carrying the SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 cargo freighter to low Earth orbit on a commercial resupply delivery mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS).

Dragon arrived at the station on Sunday, April 10, loaded with 3 tons of supplies, science experiments and the BEAM experimental expandable module.

Landing on the barge was a secondary goal of SpaceX and not part of the primary mission for NASA.

Watch this launch video from my video camera placed at the pad:

Video Caption: Spectacular blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Dragon CRS-8 cargo freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL at 4:43 p.m. EST on April 8, 2016. Up close movie captured by Mobius remote video camera placed at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The recovered booster will be cleaned and defueled, says SpaceX spokesman John Taylor.

SpaceX engineers will conduct a series of 12 test firings to ensure all is well operationally and that the booster can be re-launched.

SpaceX hopes to refly the recovered booster in a few months, perhaps as early as this summer.

Droneship touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage on "Of Course I Still Love You" as captured by remote camera on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX
Droneship touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage on “Of Course I Still Love You” as captured by remote camera on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster successfully lands on droneship after blastoff on Dragon CRS-8 mission to ISS for NASA on April 8, 2016.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 booster successfully lands on droneship after blastoff on Dragon CRS-8 mission to ISS for NASA on April 8, 2016. Credit: SpaceX
Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Flight Reliability at NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum, NY, discusses SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon launches. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Flight Reliability at NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum, NY, discusses SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon launches. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Falcon 9 Recovered 1st Stage Arrives Back in Port After Historic Upright Landing at Sea

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Julian Leek

The SpaceX Falcon 9 that triumphantly accomplished history’s first upright landing of the spent first stage of a rocket on a barge at sea – after launching a critical cargo payload to orbit for NASA – sailed back into port at Cape Canaveral overnight in the wee hours of this morning, April 12, standing tall.

The recovered 15 story tall Falcon 9 booster arrived back into Port Canaveral, Florida at about 130 a.m. early today, towed atop the ocean going platform that SpaceX dubs an ‘Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship’ or ASDS.

The ship is named “Of Course I Still Love You” after a starship from a novel written by Iain M. Banks. The landing platform measures only about 170 ft × 300 ft (52 m × 91 m).

A small crowd of excited onlookers and space photographers savored and cheered the incredible moment that is surely changing the face and future of space exploration and travel.

The two stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boasting over 1.5 million pounds of thrust originally launched on Friday, April 8 at 4:43 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The primary goal of the Falcon 9 launch was carrying the SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 cargo freighter to low Earth orbit on a commercial resupply delivery mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS).

Before the launch, SpaceX managers rated the chances of a successful landing recovery rather high.

Three previous attempts by SpaceX to land on a barge at sea were partially successful, as the stage made a pinpoint flyback to the tiny ship but either hit too hard or tipped over in the final moments when a landing leg failed to fully deploy or lock in place.

“We were very optimistic of the chances of a successful landing on this mission,” Hans Koenigsmann told Universe Today in an exclusive post landing interview at the NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum (NEAF) held in Suffern, NY.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch from and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Julian Leek

Coincidentally, today marks two major anniversaries in the history of space flight; the 55th anniversary of the launch of Russia’s Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space on Vostok-1 on April 12, 1961; and the 35th anniversary of the launch of shuttle Columbia on America’s first space shuttle mission (STS-1) on April 12, 1981 with John Young and Bob Crippen.

The vision of SpaceX’s billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk is to dramatically slash the cost of access to space by recovering the firms rockets and recycling them for reuse – so that launching rockets will one day be nearly as routine and cost effective as flying on an airplane.

The stage will now be painstakingly inspected, tested and refurbished.

The essential next step after recovery is recycling. Musk said he hopes to re-launch the booster this year.

At liftoff, Dragon was loaded with over 3.5 tons of research experiments and essential supplies for the six man crew living aboard the orbiting science complex.
Watch this launch video from my video camera placed at the pad:

Video Caption: Spectacular blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Dragon CRS-8 cargo freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL at 4:43 p.m. EST on April 8, 2016. Up close movie captured by Mobius remote video camera placed at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Dragon CRS-8 cargo ship successfully arrived at the station on Sunday, April 10 and was joined to the million pound station at the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.

The secondary objective was to try and land the Falcon 9 first stage on the ASDS done ship located some 200 miles off shore in the Atlantic Ocean.

The action-packed and propulsive landing took place some 10 minutes after liftoff.

In the final moments of the descent to the drone ship, one of the first stage Merlin 1D engines was reignited to slow the boosters descent speed as the quartet of side-mounted landing legs at the boosters base were unfurled, deployed and locked into place.

The entire launch and landing sequence was webcast live on NASA TV and by SpaceX.

The recovered booster atop the “Of Course I Still Love You” barge was towed back to port by the Elsbeth III tug.

“Home sweet home”, said my friend and veteran space photographer Julian Leek, who witnessed the boosters arrival back in port overnight.

“It was really a sight to see. Pilots and tugs did a well coordinated job to bring her in.”

After daylight dawned, a crane lifted the recovered booster into a storage cradle where it will remain upright for a few days. Then it will be lowered and placed horizontally for transport a few miles north to a SpaceX processing hanger back at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moved by crane from drone ship to an upright storage cradle on land at Port Canaveral,  Florida on April 12, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moved by crane from drone ship to an upright storage cradle on land at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

The booster will be cleaned and defueled, SpaceX spokesman John Taylor told the media.

SpaceX engineers will conduct a series of 12 test firings to ensure all is well operationally and that the booster can be re-launched.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch from and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: SpaceX
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

NASA Jason-3 Sea Level Rise Reconnaissance Satellite Successfully Blasts off on SpaceX Falcon 9; Hard Landing on Barge

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen as it launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, , Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Jason-3, an international mission led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will help continue U.S.-European satellite measurements of global ocean height changes. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen as it launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Jason-3, an international mission led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will help continue U.S.-European satellite measurements of global ocean height changes. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched the NASA/NOAA/European Jason-3 sea level rise reconnaissance satellite a short while ago today, Sunday, Jan. 17, from Vandenberg Air Force Base into a polar orbit around the Earth.

The launch was a complete success with all first and second stage rocket firings and the Jason-3 deployment occurring precisely as planned and on time. Continue reading “NASA Jason-3 Sea Level Rise Reconnaissance Satellite Successfully Blasts off on SpaceX Falcon 9; Hard Landing on Barge”

SpaceX Trying Ambitious 2nd Rocket Recovery Landing in 4 Weeks

SpaceX is on course to move ahead with an ambitious spaceflight agenda, trying a 2nd rocket recovery landing of their Falcon 9 booster in barely 4 weeks time and upcoming this Sunday, Jan. 17, says Elon Musk, the billionaire founder and CEO of SpaceX.

Musk confirmed that SpaceX plans to launch and subsequently land the first stage of its next Falcon 9 rocket on a “droneship” at sea in the Pacific Ocean this weekend. Continue reading “SpaceX Trying Ambitious 2nd Rocket Recovery Landing in 4 Weeks”

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon CRS-6 set for April 13 Launch to ISS and Historic Landing Attempt

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Now just a day away, all systems are “GO” for blastoff of the next SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon CRS-6 cargo capsule on Monday, April 13, on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and a near simultaneous historic attempt to soft land the boosters first stage on a barge in a remote area of the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles offshore from the US eastern seaboard.

In advance of Mondays launch attempt, SpaceX engineers successfully completed the practice countdown dress rehearsal and required static fire engine test this afternoon, Saturday, April 11, to ensure everything is ready with the rocket and first Stage Merlin 1-D engines for a safe and successful mission to the orbiting outpost.

The Dragon capsule has already been loaded with most of the cargo bound for the space station and was mated to the Falcon 9 booster earlier this week.

Although it is raining heavily now around the Florida Space Coast region along with multiple tornado warning threats, NASA and SpaceX officials are hopeful that weather conditions will clear sufficiently to permit Monday’s planned launch.

U.S. Air Force weather forecasters from the 45th Weather Squadron currently rate the chances of favorable conditions at launch time as 60 percent GO for liftoff of the sixth SpaceX commercial resupply services mission (CRS-6) to the ISS.

Static fire engine test completed on April 11, 2015 in advance of April 13 launch attempt to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX
Static fire engine test completed on April 11, 2015 in advance of April 13 launch attempt to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX and NASA are targeting blastoff of the Falcon 9 and Dragon CRS-6 spacecraft for Monday, April 13, slated at approximately 4:33 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

NASA Television plans live launch coverage starting at 3:30 p.m EDT: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html

SpaceX also plans live launch coverage beginning at 4:15pm EDT: www.spacex.com/webcast

The launch window is instantaneous, meaning that the rocket must liftoff at the precisely appointed time. Any delays due to weather or technical factors will force a scrub.

If all goes well with Mondays launch attempt, the Dragon spacecraft will rendezvous with the Earth orbiting outpost Wednesday, April 15, after a two day orbital chase.

In the event of a scrub for any reason, the backup launch day is 24 hours later on Tuesday, April 14, at approximately 4:10 p.m.

The Falcon 9 first stage is outfitted with four landing legs and grid fins to enable the landing attempt, which is a secondary objective of SpaceX. Cargo delivery to the station is the overriding primary objective and the entire reason for the CRS-6 mission.

The SpaceX plan is to direct the spent 1st stage on a precision guided rocket assisted descent from high altitude to accomplish a pinpoint soft landing onto a tiny platform in the middle of a vast ocean.

The ocean-going barge is known as the ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship’ (ASDS). It is being positioned some 200 to 250 miles offshore of the Carolina’s in the Atlantic Ocean along the rockets flight path flying along the US Northeast coast to match that of the ISS.

The ASDS measures only 300 by 100 feet, with wings that extend its width to 170 feet.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

This marks the 2nd attempt by SpaceX to recovery the 14 story tall Falcon 9 first stage booster on the ASDS barge.

The first attempt in January during the CRS-5 mission was largely successful, as I wrote earlier at Universe Today, despite making a ‘hard landing’ on the ASDS. The booster did make it to the drone ship, positioned some 200 miles offshore of the Florida-Carolina coast, northeast of the launch site in the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket broke into pieces upon hitting the barge.

Overall CRS-6 is the sixth SpaceX commercial resupply services mission and the seventh trip by a Dragon spacecraft to the station since 2012.

CRS-6 marks the company’s sixth operational resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s original Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Dragon is packed with more than 4,300 pounds (1915 kilograms) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing and assorted research gear for the six person Expedition 43 and 44 crews serving aboard the ISS.

Dragon cargo vessel ready for mating to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for CRS-6 mission launch to the International Space Station (ISS) scheduled for April 13, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
Dragon cargo vessel ready for mating to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for CRS-6 mission launch to the International Space Station (ISS) scheduled for April 13, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

The ship will remain berthed at the ISS for about five weeks.

The ISS cannot function without regular deliveries of fresh cargo by station partners from Earth.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of the CRS-6 launch from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Dragon cargo vessel being mated to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for CRS-6 mission launch to the International Space Station (ISS) scheduled for April 13, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
Dragon cargo vessel being mated to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for CRS-6 mission launch to the International Space Station (ISS) scheduled for April 13, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

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Learn more about SpaceX, Mars rovers, Orion, Antares, MMS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 11-13: “SpaceX, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, MMS, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Apr 18/19: “Curiosity explores Mars” and “NASA Human Spaceflight programs” – NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club