It was only last week that Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launched the first wave of a next-generation telecommunications satellite fleet to orbit for customer ORBCOMM on the OG-2 mission, but the flight also gave the Hawthorne, Calif.-based aerospace company another opportunity to test out the experimental landing legs they hope will make their Falcon rockets truly reusable, and in doing so SpaceX expects to drive down the cost of launch dramatically by eliminating the need to build a new rocket for every flight.
The “soft-landing test” was the second such test carried out by SpaceX this year, where the Falcon-9 rocket’s first stage reentered Earth’s atmosphere and soft landed vertically in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Canaveral, Fla. Being that these early tests are completely experimental, a low-probability of success has always been expected and even emphasized by SpaceX. However, although the first stage from the OG-2 launch went “Kaboom” on landing, according to the company’s CEO Elon Musk, the test did produce a lot of relevant data which SpaceX needs to make a future test successful.
“After landing, the vehicle tipped sideways as planned to its final water safing state in a nearly horizontal position,” said SpaceX in a statement released July 22. “The water impact caused loss of hull integrity, but we received all the necessary data to achieve a successful landing on a future flight. Going forward, we are taking steps to minimize the build up of ice and spots on the camera housing in order to gather improved video on future launches.”
WATCH: Falcon-9 First Stage Soft-Landing Test #2 on ORBCOMM OG2 Launch
According to SpaceX, the second soft-landing test conducted during last week’s OG-2 launch confirms the Falcon-9 v1.1 rocket’s ability to “consistently reenter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs and touch down at near zero velocity.”
The next Falcon-9 first stage soft landing test will have to wait a few flights, as the next two missions SpaceX is scheduled to fly, AsiaSat-6 and AsiaSat-8 on Falcon-9 flights 11 and 12, are both destined for geostationary orbit. Those kind of high-velocity missions, according to SpaceX, don’t allow enough residual propellant for landing. Those types of missions are, however, expected to fly on the company’s still-in-development mammoth Falcon Heavy rocket, and until the Falcon Heavy becomes operational the Falcon-9 will have to operate in expendable mode.
“At this point, we are highly confident of being able to land successfully on a floating launch pad or back at the launch site and re-fly the rocket with no required refurbishment,” added SpaceX in their statement. “We will attempt our next water landing on flight 13 of Falcon 9 with a low probability of success. Flights 14 and 15 will attempt to land on a solid surface with an improved probability of success.”
Falcon-9 flight 13, the next available first stage soft-landing test opportunity, is currently scheduled to launch the company’s autonomous unmanned Dragon spacecraft on their fourth Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-4) flight to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA no earlier than Sept. 12, 2014.
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