“The Falcon Has Landed” – SpaceX Soft Lands Rocket after Launch in Historic Feat

“The Falcon Has Landed!” gushed exuberant SpaceX officials following tonight’s (Dec 21) history making upright ground landing of the firms spent Falcon 9 boost stage barely 10 minutes after if launched on a critical mission to deliver a constellation of commercial communications satellites to Earth orbit.

Breaking News: Check Back later for more. See more photos video in follow up story here

Following a spectacular nighttime blastoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla, SpaceX has just successfully recovered and soft landed the 156 foot tall first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket back on the ground at the Cape – in a monumental and historic space feat that will reverberate around the world. This is a game changing moment that will alter the future of space travel.

WATCH the SpaceX webcast as the first stage lands, at about 31 minutes in the video:

Local area spectators cheered the launch and clearly saw the landing. They said several powerful sonic booms could be heard thundering loudly across the space coast. It was one of the most amazing sights they had ever seen, many folks said.

The upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 launched a fleet 11 ORBCOMM OG2 communications satellites to orbit on Monday, Dec. 21 at 8:29 p.m. from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The stunning liftoff and landing marked the Falcon 9 boosters ‘Return to Flight’ and is the first launch for SpaceX since the catastrophic mid-air destruction of the rocket six months ago on June 28, 2015 – after launching from the same pad as today – on a cargo mission for NASA bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and her six person crew.

The first stage landing, vertically at night, was apparently perfect and came off without a hitch by all accounts.

The Falcon 9 is equipped with four landing legs and four grid fins to enable the propulsive landing back on the ground at the Cape, once the first stage separates and relights a Merlin 1D engine.

About 3 minutes after liftoff and about 60 miles altitude, the spent first stage separated from the second stage which continued to orbit with the Orbcomm satellites.

While moving at extremely high speed of some 3000 mph, the rocket was then commanded to fire cold gas nitrogen attitude thrusters to reorient itself and to turn the vehicle around – its sort of like riding on a broomstick in a hurricane. It then conducted a boostback burn with a first stage Merlin 1D engine to create a reversed ballistic arc. Then it conducted a reentry burn and finally a landing burn above the ground at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral.

The quartet of side mounted landing legs were lowered into place in the final moments before touchdown.

Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

The history making landing attempt of the boosters first stage took place back at the Cape at the SpaceX Landing Zone 1 site at about 8:39 p.m. EST after high altitude separation from the upper stage and around 10 minutes after launch.

The entire event from launch to landing was shown via a live SpaceX webcast.

The goal is to recover and eventually reuse the boosters in order to radically cut the cost of sending payloads and people to space, as often stated by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

But the key step to solve is you first have to recover the booster before you can even think about relaunching it. After its recovered it can then be thoroughly analyzed for the impact of aerodynamic stresses and the engine firings to determine the feasibility of refurbishment and reusability for relaunch.

Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

Landing the Falcon 9 rockets first stage on land at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) complex by a pinpoint propulsive soft landing was the secondary test objective. Landing Zone 1 is located some six miles south of launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral.

Because of the proximity to populated areas, SpaceX required special approvals for the surface landing test from the Air Force and the FAA. And much of the military base and NASA installations have been evacuated for safety reasons. Media are also not allowed to watch and photograph from their customary locations on site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX has built Landing Zone 1 by renovating and refurbishing an abandoned area previously known as Space Launch Complex 13 (SLC-13).

Landing Zone 1 measures about 282 feet in diameter and is constructed of reinforced concrete. SpaceX has actually built several of the concrete landing pads for use as a landing site by the firms Falcon 9 as well as the triple barreled Falcon Heavy boosters which may debut in 2016.

Launch Complex 13 is a former U.S. Air Force rocket and missile testing range last used in 1978 for test launches of the Atlas ICBM and subsequently for operational Atlas launches.

View of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage approaching Landing Zone 1 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
View of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage approaching Landing Zone 1 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

The primary mission was to carry a payload of eleven small commercial communications satellites for Orbcomm on the second OG2 mission. They were fueled and stacked on the satellite dispenser and encapsulated inside the payload fairing.

All 11 of the refrigerator sized OG2 satellites were successfully deployed as planned at an altitude of about 400 mi (620 km). They joined the existing fleet of OG2 satellites.

The 380 pound (170 kg) satellites were deployed two at a time from the satellite dispenser during six separation events. The staggered deployment of the 170 kg comsats took place over about four minutes from 8:42 p.m. to 8 46 p.m. in order to place the constellation of spacecraft into the proper orbit.

All 11 Orbcomm OG2 satellites were deployed to nominal orbits.  Credit: SpaceX
All 11 Orbcomm OG2 satellites were deployed to nominal orbits. Credit: SpaceX

This was the second and last OG2 launch for OrbComm. SpaceX has already notched one successful launch for Orbcomm when the first six Orbcomm OG2 satellites lifted off on July 14, 2014.

The ORBCOMM OG2 satellites provide Machine – to – Machine (M2M) messaging and Automatic Identification System (AIS) services.

Overall it was a wildly successful ‘Return to Flight’ and a historic day for SpaceX.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for Orbcomm OG2 launch slated for Dec. 20 stands vertical at pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for Orbcomm OG2 launch before liftoff on Dec. 21, stands vertical at pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: SpaceX

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

Ken Kremer

Aerial view of SpaceX landing Zone 1 Complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
Aerial view of SpaceX landing Zone 1 Complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida

SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket and Landing Zone 1 Ready for Historic Dec. 21 Blastoff – Live Webcast

All is “GO” in the final hours of the countdown to leading up to tonight’s, Dec. 21, the high stakes blastoff of an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral on its ‘Return to Flight’ mission carrying a flock of commercial satellites to orbit that also features a breathtaking and history making flyback of the rockets first stage to a soft landing on the ground that could open a majestic era of Rocket Reusability – if all goes well.

Local space coast area residents might hear a sonic boom as the first stage propulsively steers back to Cape Canaveral.

The timing of Monday’s dramatic night launch of the 229 foot tall Falcon 9 rocket with a fleet of eleven commercial communications satellites for Orbcomm from Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. has been revised to 8:29 p.m. EST.

Liftoff of the two stage Falcon 9 is slated for the opening of a newly revised and slight longer launch window which extends for five minutes under currently cloudy Florida skies.

You can watch the dramatic events unfold via a live SpaceX webcast available at SpaceX.com/webcast.

The SpaceX webcast is planned to start about 25 minutes before liftoff, beginning at approximately 8:10 p.m. ET on Dec. 21.

Aerial view of SpaceX landing Zone 1 Complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
Aerial view of SpaceX landing Zone 1 Complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida

Air Force meteorologists are currently predicting an 80 percent chance of favorable weather conditions at launch time.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will deliver 11 satellites to low-Earth orbit for ORBCOMM, a leading global provider of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communication and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions.

The history making landing attempt of the boosters first stage back at the Cape at Landing Zone 1 would come after high altitude separation from the upper stage and around 10 minutes after launch, and has gathered significant notoriety.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for Orbcomm OG2 launch stands vertical at pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. for launch on Dec. 20, 2015.  Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for Orbcomm OG2 launch stands vertical at pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. for launch on Dec. 20, 2015. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The goal is to recover and eventually reuse the boosters in order to significantly cut the cost of access to space, as often stated by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Artist’s concept shows SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage descending to Landing Zone 1 complex at  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: SpaceX
Artist’s concept shows SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage descending to Landing Zone 1 complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: SpaceX

Here is the Mission Timeline from SpaceX

COUNTDOWN

Hour/Min Events
– 00:34 Launch Conductor takes launch readiness poll
– 00:30 RP-1 (rocket grade kerosene) and liquid oxygen (LOX) loading underway
– 00:10 Falcon 9 begins engine chill prior to launch
– 00:02 Range Control Officer (USAF) verifies range is go for launch
– 00:01:30 SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for launch
– 00:01 Command flight computer to begin final prelaunch checks
– 00:01 Pressurize propellant tanks
– 00:00:03 Engine controller commands engine ignition sequence to start
00:00:00 Falcon 9 liftoff

LAUNCH AND FIRST-STAGE LANDING

Hour/Min Events
00:01 Max Q (moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket)
00:02:20 1st stage engine shutdown/main engine cutoff (MECO)
00:02:24 1st and 2nd stages separate
00:02:35 2nd stage engine starts
00:03 Fairing deployment 00:04 1st stage boostback burn
00:08 1st stage re-entry burn
00:10 2nd stage engine cutoff (SECO)
00:10 1st stage landing
00:15 ORBCOMM satellites begin deployment
00:20 ORBCOMM satellites end deployment
00:26 1st satellite completes antenna & solar array deployment & starts transmitting
00:31 All satellites complete antenna & solar array deployment & start transmitting

Technicians will load the rocket with liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants.

The primary mission is to carry a payload of eleven small commercial communications satellites for Orbcomm on the second OG2 mission. They are fueled and stacked on the satellite dispenser and encapsulated inside the payload fairing.

The secondary test objective of SpaceX is to land the Falcon 9 rockets first stage on land by a pinpoint propulsive soft landing for the first time in history at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 complex, located several miles south of launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral.

View of the eleven ORBCOMM OG2 satellites beside the payload fairing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Orbcomm/SpaceX
View of the eleven ORBCOMM OG2 satellites beside the payload fairing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Orbcomm/SpaceX

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Targets Dramatic Nighttime Falcon 9 Launch and Daring Cape Canaveral Landing on Dec. 21

A “significantly upgraded” SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands erect on the Florida space coast today, Sunday, Dec. 20, and is poised to make history Monday evening (Dec. 21) with a spectacular nighttime blast off and daring first ever surface landing attempt of the boosters first stage at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, that could be accompanied by sonic booms – if all goes well.

Dec 20 Update: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has just scrubbed for the day and reset launch to Monday, Dec. 21 and story is revised.

“Just reviewed mission params w SpaceX team. Monte Carlo runs show tmrw night has a 10% higher chance of a good landing. Punting 24 hrs,” Musk tweeted. Continue reading “SpaceX Targets Dramatic Nighttime Falcon 9 Launch and Daring Cape Canaveral Landing on Dec. 21”

SpaceX Sets Dec. 20 For ‘Return to Flight’ Launch and Historic Rocket Ground Landing Recovery Attempt – Watch Live

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced today (Dec. 19) that his company plans to launch an upgraded version of its Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday night, Dec. 20, from Cape Canaveral, Florida – for the first time since it failed in flight six months ago on a mission for NASA to the space station – after successfully completing a crucial test of the rockets engines late Friday night.

Furthermore, SpaceX confirmed it will conduct a historic first ever attempt to recover the commercial rocket’s first stage by a soft landing on the ground at a special SpaceX site called Landing Zone 1 on the Cape’s Air Force Station. Continue reading “SpaceX Sets Dec. 20 For ‘Return to Flight’ Launch and Historic Rocket Ground Landing Recovery Attempt – Watch Live”

NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016

NASA has just received a significant boost in the agency’s current budget after both chambers of Congress passed the $1.1 Trillion 2016 omnibus spending bill this morning, Friday, Dec. 18, which funds the US government through the remainder of Fiscal Year 2016.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounts to nearly $19.3 Billion – an outstandingly magnificent result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier this year. Continue reading “NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016”

Earthrise Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

Nearly 47 years ago, the crew of Apollo 8 took an image of planet Earth from the Moon that has been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Called Earthrise, the picture represented the first time human eyes saw their homeworld come into view around another planetary body.

Now, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has captured stunning new high-definition views of Earth and the Moon from the spacecraft’s vantage point in lunar orbit.
Continue reading “Earthrise Like You’ve Never Seen It Before”

Moisture Vaporators, Death Star Construction and Other Real Star Wars Tech

Remember that time an X-Wing fighter flew past the International Space Station? Or when R2D2 saved the ISS crew?

OK, yeah, those things didn’t really happen, but since the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, there has been a lot of technology developed that mimics the science and tech from the sci-fi blockbuster films. Of course, we now have real robots in space (Robonaut), drones are now everyday items, there are actual holograms (Voxiebox and Fairy Lights) and DARPA has been developing prosthetic limbs that Luke Skywalker would totally use, called the Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET). Plus, Boeing is building blaster guns that will use “pew-pew” sound effects from Star Wars. Seriously. The lasers are silent, and so they need to add sound to know for sure they’ve been fired.

Since we all certainly have Star Wars on the brain today (The Force Awakens opens tonight), let’s take a look at a few recent space-related developments that hint of inspiration from the movies:
Continue reading “Moisture Vaporators, Death Star Construction and Other Real Star Wars Tech”

Win a Great Holiday Gift: The ‘Year in Space’ Wall Calendar

What’s the perfect holiday gift for any space fan? It’s the 2016 version of Steve Cariddi’s amazing Year in Space Wall Calendar, which is now available to order. And thanks to Steve, Universe Today has another 5 copies to give away!

This calendar is huge, and is full of amazing color images, daily space facts, historical references, and it even shows you where you can look in the sky for all the best astronomical sights.

This is a gorgeous wall calendar that has over 120 beautiful photos of space, and at 16 inches by 22 inches, it is much larger than other wall calendars. It has great illustrations and information that every space fan will appreciate.

For our giveaway, to be entered into the drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Monday, December 21, 2015.
Continue reading “Win a Great Holiday Gift: The ‘Year in Space’ Wall Calendar”

First British Astronaut to Visit ISS Blasts Off on Soyuz with Russian/American Crewmates

The Soyuz TMA-19M rocket is launched with the Expedition 46 crew of Yuri Malenchenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Tim Kopra of NASA, and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency), on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
The Soyuz TMA-19M rocket is launched with the Expedition 46 crew of Yuri Malenchenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Tim Kopra of NASA, and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency), on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The first British astronaut to blast off on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS) soared gloriously skyward early today, Dec 15, following the flawless launch of a Russian Soyuz capsule with his Russian/American crewmates from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The picture perfect liftoff of the Soyuz TMA-19M rocket into clear blue skies with Expedition 46 Soyuz Commander and six time space flyer Yuri Malenchenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Tim Kopra of NASA, and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency), occurred at 6:03 a.m. EST (5:03 p.m. Baikonur time, 1103 GMT) on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.

The Soyuz crew executed a series of Continue reading “First British Astronaut to Visit ISS Blasts Off on Soyuz with Russian/American Crewmates”