Late Monday evening a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off the pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida on a mission to launch 11 Orbcomm satellites into low earth orbit. These satellites join a growing constellation in building out a communications infrastructure which will eventually serve a number of industries. But the launch was special mostly for other reasons. This was a return to launch some 6 months after a failure of the previous Falcon 9 rocket launch attempt and the first time the upgraded version of the rocket (slightly longer to increase fuel capacity and also uses a colder, more dense liquid oxygen to further increase capabilities) has launched. It is a significant upgrade and one which is critical to the evolution of satellite-based communications technologies (the stuff which makes in-flight internet work, plus myriad other benefits). And SpaceX plans to use the technology to eventually launch missions to Mars.
But none of that is the cool part.
About 9 minutes after launch the first stage of the rocket executed its third (or fourth) and final burn, settling upright on to a landing zone at Cape Canaveral. The rocket went to space and returned safely to where it started, all under its own power.
Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns pic.twitter.com/Vw1ZJAtvhy
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 22, 2015
— Michael Seeley (@Mike_Seeley) December 22, 2015
There and back again pic.twitter.com/Ll7wg2hL1G
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2015
This is, as was suggested during the launch webcast, the difference between flying from A to B and then throwing away the plane every time versus reusing the aircraft. Rockets are not cheap and getting to reuse the bulk of the kit will lead to significant savings over time for the industry. That helps with cheaper communications satellite launches, cheaper navigation system upgrades, cheaper transportation and whatever else we decide to use rockets for. It is a new era in exploration and technology. It is incredible.
Added bonus: The satellites are all working.
All 11 have checked in,
— Marc Eisenberg (@Marc944Marc) December 22, 2015
— ORBCOMM (@ORBCOMM_Inc) December 22, 2015
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