And to celebrate these feats, SpaceX has placed a particularly special first stage on display outside the company headquarters in Hawthorne, California. This particular rocket stage made history about eight months ago (on Dec. 21st, 2015), when it became the first-ever first stage to be recovered in the entire history of spaceflight.
For the sake of this mission, which was the 20th flight conducted by SpaceX using this class of rocket, the Falcon 9 was tasked with delivering 11 Orbcomm-OG2 communications satellites into orbit. After separating, the first stage descended to Earth and became the first rocket stage ever to make a soft landing and recovery.
Prior to this flight, SpaceX’s had made two attempts at a vertical landing and booster recovery, both of which ended in failure. The first attempt, which took place in January of 2015, ended when the rocket came close to a successful landing aboard the company’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), but then fell over and exploded.
An investigation determined that failure was due to the rocket’s steering fins running out of hydraulic fluid. The second failed attempt, which took place in April of last year, ended when the rocket stage was mere seconds away from landing on ASDS, but once again fell over and exploded. This time around, the culprit was a failure in one of the rocket stage’s engine throttle valves.
On the third attempt, which took place on Dec. 21st, the Falcon 9 first stage landed a mere ten minutes after launching from Earth. After its descent, it successfully touched down in an upright position on SpaceX’s Landing Zone (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The success of this recovery was a major milestone for the company, and a breakthrough in the history of space exploration and technology. Little wonder then why the company is choosing to honor it by placing it on display at the Hawthorn facility, where their rocket manufacturing plant is located.
It all happened this past weekend, where work crews spent Saturday and Sunday standing the 50 meter (165 foot) Falcon 9 stage up on its landing skids. Prior to it being transported to their headquarters in Hawthorne, the rocket’s first stage was being kept in a horizontal position at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and then at a location a few blocks away from the HQ.
Getting it to stand again was no easy task, and required two days and two cranes! The rocket also underwent some “aesthetic renewal” before being erected, which included a cleaning in order to remove all the soot it had accumulated on re-entry. Its logos were also repainted, and most of its engines were replaced by spent versions.
Since this first recovery, SpaceX has managed to conduct five more successful recoveries, one on land and four on its ASDS. They are moving ahead with the first launch of their Falcon Heavy – Demo Flight 1, which is scheduled to take place by the end of 2016 – which will be the heaviest rocket to be launched from the US since the retirement of the venerable Saturn V.
Yes, the little company Elon Musk started with the dream of one-day colonizing Mars has certainly achieved some milestones. And between the creation of this display, and the Dragon capsule they have on display inside their Hawthorn headquarters, the company is clearly committed to immortalizing them.
And be sure to enjoy this video of the Falcon 9 making its first successful landing, courtesy of 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
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.
See the stupendous events unfold in up close photos and videos herein.
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.
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.
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.”
“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].”
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.
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
“Good capture confirmed after a two day rendezvous,” said Houston Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, as Dragon was approximately 30 feet (10 meters) away from the station.
“We’ve captured us a Dragon,” radioed Williams.
“Congratulations to the entire team that put this thing together, launched it, and successfully rendezvoused it to the International Space Station. We look forward to the work that it brings.”
The events unfolded live on a NASA TV webcast for all to follow along.
Furthermore, today’s dramatic Dragon arrival coincides with a renowned day in the annuls of space history. Today coincides with the 40th anniversary of humanity’s first successful touchdown on the surface of Mars by NASA’s Viking 1 lander on July 20, 1976. It paved the way for many future missions.
And Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to land on another celestial body – the Moon – on July 20, 1969 during NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.
Williams was working from a robotics work station in the station’s domed cupola. Rubins was Williams backup. She just arrived at the station on July 9 for a minimum 4 month stay, after launching to orbit on a Russian Soyuz on July 6 with two additional crew mates.
Ground controllers then used the robotic arm to maneuver the Dragon cargo spacecraft closer to its berthing port on the Earth facing side of the Harmony module, located at the front of the station.
Some three hours after the successful grappling, Dragon was joined to the station and bolted into place for initial berthing on the Harmony module at 10:03 a.m. EDT as the station flew about 252 statute miles over the California and Oregon border.
Controllers then activated four gangs of four bolts in the common berthing mechanism (CBM) to complete the second stage capture of the latching and berthing of Dragon to the station with a total of 16 bolts to ensure a snug connection, safety and no pressure leaks.
Crew members Williams and Rubins along with Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi are now working to install power and data cables from the station to Dragon. They plan to open the hatch tomorrow after pressurizing the vestibule in the forward bulkhead between the station and Dragon.
Dragon reached the station after a carefully choreographed orbital chase and series of multiple thruster firings to propel the cargo ship from its preliminary post launch orbit up to the massive million pound science outpost with six resident crew members from the US, Russia and Japan.
Among the 5000 pounds of equipment on board is the first of two identical docking adapters essential for enabling station dockings next year by NASA’s new commercial astronaut taxis. This mission is all about supporting NASA’s ‘Journey to Mars’ by humans in the 2030s.
Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in its upgraded, full thrust version and the Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship took place barely 48 hours ago at 12:45 a.m. EDT Monday, July 18, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Dragon reached its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes after launch and then deployed a pair of solar arrays.
SpaceX also successfully executed a spellbinding ground landing of the Falcon 9 first stage back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1, located a few miles south of launch pad 40.
The dramatic ground landing of the 156 foot tall Falcon 9 first stage at LZ -1 took place about 9 minutes after liftoff. It marks only the second time a spent orbit class booster has touched down intact and upright on land.
Among the wealth of over 3900 pounds (1790 kg) of research investigations loaded on board Dragon is an off the shelf instrument designed to perform the first-ever DNA sequencing in space and the first international docking adapter (IDA) that is absolutely essential for docking of the SpaceX and Boeing built human spaceflight taxis that will ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in some 18 months.
Other science experiments on board include OsteoOmics to test if magnetic levitation can accurately simulate microgravity to study different types of bone cells and contribute to treatments for diseases like osteoporosis, a Phase Change Heat Exchanger to test temperature control technology in space, the Heart Cells experiments that will culture heart cells on the station to study how microgravity changes the human heart, new and more efficient three-dimensional solar cells, and new marine vessel tracking hardware known as the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that will aid in locating and identifying commercial ships across the globe.
The ring shaped IDA-2 unit is stowed in the Dragon’s unpressurized truck section. It weighs 1029 lbs (467 kg), measures about 42 inches tall and sports an inside diameter of 63 inches in diameter – so astronauts and cargo can easily float through. The outer diameter measures about 94 inches.
“Outfitted with a host of sensors and systems, the adapter is built so spacecraft systems can automatically perform all the steps of rendezvous and dock with the station without input from the astronauts. Manual backup systems will be in place on the spacecraft to allow the crew to take over steering duties, if needed,” says NASA.
“It’s a passive system which means it doesn’t take any action by the crew to allow docking to happen and I think that’s really the key,” said David Clemen Boeing’s director of Development/Modifications for the space station.
“Spacecraft flying to the station will use the sensors on the IDA to track to and help the spacecraft’s navigation system steer the spacecraft to a safe docking without astronaut involvement.”
CRS-9 counts as the company’s ninth scheduled flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the International Space Station (ISS).
The CRS-9 mission is for the crews of Expeditions 48 and 49 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.
Dragon will remain at the station until its scheduled departure on Aug. 29 when it will return critical science research back to Earth via a parachute assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.
Watch for Ken’s continuing 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.
In their drive to achieve the goal of reusable rockets, SpaceX has spent the past few years running their Falcon 9 rocket through the most rigorous of tests. And while they have achieved a soft landing once before, SpaceX has been unable to safely land their rockets at sea, despite several attempts. This has been an important step in the development process, as it would mean that the Falcon 9 can be landed under the most difficult of conditions.
But earlier today, SpaceX finally reached that milestone as their CRS-08 mission, which was launched from Cape Canaveral at 4:43 pm (ET), made it back to Earth in one piece. After sending its payload of a Dragon Capsule to rendezvous with the International Space Station, the first-stage rocket successfully made a soft landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. This one achievement brings SpaceX one step closer to fulfilling the goal Musk founded the company upon, which is achieving cost-effective, commercial spaceflight.
A new Avengers movie. A reboot of the Star Wars franchise. The final installment of the Hunger Games. The Martian makes it to the big screen. Yup, even if the zombie apocalypse occurs in 2015, it’ll still be a great year. But trading science fiction for fact, we’re also on track for a spectacular year in space science and exploration as well.
Humanity will get its first good look at Ceres and Pluto, giving us science writers some new pics to use instead of the same half dozen blurry dots and artist’s conceptions. SpaceX will also attempt a daring landing on a sea platform, and long duration missions aboard the International Space Station will get underway. And key technology headed to space and on Earth may lead the way to opening up the window of gravitational wave astronomy on the universe. Here’s 10 sure-fire bets to watch for in the coming year from Universe Today:
10. LISA Pathfinder
A precursor to a full-fledged gravitational wave detector in space, LISA Pathfinder will be launching atop a Vega rocket from Kourou, French Guiana in July 2015. LISA stands for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, and the Pathfinder mission will journey to the L1 Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun to test key technologies. LISA Pathfinder will pave the way for the full fledged LISA space platform, a series of three free flying spacecraft proposed for launch in the 2030s.
9. AdLIGO Goes Online
And speaking of gravitational waves, we may finally get the first direct detection of the same in 2015, when Advanced LIGO is set to go online. Comprised of two L-shaped detectors, one based in Livingston Louisiana, and another in Hanford Washington, AdLIGO will feature ten times the sensitivity of the original LIGO observatory. In fact, as was the case of the hunt for the Higgs-Boson by CERN, a non-detection of gravitational waves by AdLIGO would be a much stranger result!
8. Hubble Turns 25
Launched on April 24th, 1990 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 25 years in space in 2015. The final servicing mission in 2009 gave Hubble a reprieve from the space junk scrap heap, and the orbiting telescope is still going strong. Hubble has no less than pushed the limits in modern astronomy to become a modern icon of the space age.
7. The End of MESSENGER
NASA’s Mercury exploring spacecraft wraps up its mission next year. Launched in 2004, MESSENGER arrived in orbit around Mercury after a series of flybys on March 18th, 2011. MESSENGER has mapped the innermost world in detail, and studied the space environment and geology of Mercury. In late March 2015, MESSENGER will achieve one final first, when it impacts the surface of Mercury at the end of its extended mission.
6. Akatsuki at Venus
This Japanese spacecraft missed orbital insertion a few years back, but gets a second chance at life in 2015. Launched in 2010 atop an H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, Akatsuki failed to enter orbit around Venus at the end of 2010, and instead headed out for a heliocentric path around the Sun. Some quick thinking by JAXA engineers led to a plan to attempt to place Akatsuki in Venusian orbit in November 2015. This would be a first for the Japanese space agency, as attempts by JAXA at placing a spacecraft in orbit around another planet – including the Mars Nozomi probe – have thus far failed.
5. SpaceX to Attempt to Land on a Sea Platform
It’ll definitely rock if they pull it off next week: on January 6th, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will lift off from Cape Canaveral with its Dragon spacecraft headed to the International Space Station on mission CRS-5. Sure, these resupply missions are becoming routine, but after liftoff, SpaceX is attempting something new and daring: landing the Falcon-9 first stage Buck Rodgers style, “fins first” on a floating barge. This is the next step in ultimately proving the feasibility of having the rocket fly back to the launch site for eventual reuse. If nothing else, expect some stunning video of the attempt soon!
4. NASA to Decide on an Asteroid Mission
Some major decisions as to the fate and the future of manned space exploration are due next year, as NASA is expected to decide on the course of action for its Asteroid Redirect Mission. The current timeline calls for the test of the SLS rocket in 2018, and the launch of a spacecraft to recover an asteroid and place it in orbit around the Moon in 2019. If all goes according to plan – a plan which could always shift with the political winds and future changes in administrations – we could see astronauts exploring a captured asteroid by the early 2020s.
3. Long Duration ISS Missions
Beginning in 2015, astronauts and cosmonauts will begin year-long stays aboard the ISS to study the effects of long duration space missions. In March of 2015, cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko and U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly will launch as part of Expedition 43 headed to the ISS. The Russians have conducted stays in space longer than a year aboard the Mir space station, but Kelly’s stay aboard the ISS will set a duration record for NASA astronauts. Perhaps, a simulated “Mars mission” aboard the ISS could be possible in the coming years?
2. Dawn at Ceres
Fresh off of exploring Vesta, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will become the first mission to enter orbit around a second object, the asteroid 1 Ceres next year in April 2015. The largest asteroid and the first object of its kind discovered on the first day of the 19th century, Ceres looks to be a fascinating world in its own right. Does it possess water ice? Active geology? Moons of its own? If Dawn’s performance at Vesta was any indication, we’re in for another exhilarating round of space exploration!
1. New Horizons at Pluto
An easy No. 1,we finally get our first good look at Pluto in July, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies less than 14,000 kilometres from the surface of the distant world. Launched in 2006, New Horizons will “thread the needle” between Pluto and Charon in a flurry of activity as it passes by. New Horizons will then turn back as it passes into the shadows of Pluto and Charon and actually view the two worlds as they occult the distant Sun. And from there, New Horizons will head out to explore Kuiper Belt Objects of opportunity.
And these are just the top stories that are slated to be big news in space in 2015. Remember, another Chelyabinsk meteor or the next big comet could drop by at any time… space news can be unpredictable, and its doubtless that 2015 will have lots more surprises in store.