SpaceX landing pushes rocket to its limits, succeeds anyway
Friday, May 27, 2016, 10:09 AM - SpaceX is about to put their Falcon 9 reusable rocket to its most extreme test yet. Can they beat the odds to add yet another successfully-landed rocket to their growing collection?
This story has been updated.
Watch below, as SpaceX presents the replay of their Friday, May 27, launch of the new THAICOM 8 communications satellite into a supersynchronous transfer orbit - to beyond the ring of geosynchronous satellites circling the Earth.
The Friday launch window was a backup, as the Thursday launch attempt was called off due to a technical problem. According to Elon Musk, there was a tiny glitch in the motion of an upper stage engine actuator.
"Probably not a flight risk," Musk said on Twitter, "but still worth investigating."
What happened after the launch was much more exciting, though.
As they have with most of their launches over the past year, SpaceX had programmed the Falcon 9 first stage booster to return to Earth for a touchdown on a droneship at sea. This time it was the "Of Course I Still Love You" waiting out on the Atlantic Ocean.
On their last two landing attempts, for the Dragon launch in early April and the JCSAT-14 launch to geosynchronous orbit in early May, both boosters performed flawlessly. Those watching were treated to incredible views of the rockets dropping out of the sky to (seemingly) effortlessly settle down onto the deck of the ship. The second of the two landings was the greater achievement, though, due to the greater speed of the launch, to get the satellite to around 36,000 km out into space. For comparison, the Dragon was only headed to around 300 km up, to the orbital height of the International Space Station.
For this launch, THAICOM 8 was headed to a supersynchronous transfer orbit, which is meant to put it beyond that 36,000 km distance. Afterward, the satellite itself will adjust its orbit to settle in and join the others in that ring of telecommunication and weather satellites.
While they've made supersynchronous launches before, this latest attempt was the first time they attempted a landing afterward. The farther distance meant that the Falcon 9 would be reaching even greater speeds than with past landing attempts, which translated into more speed that the first stage booster needed to shed in order to make the landing intact.
According to SpaceX:
"the first-stage will be subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating, making a successful landing challenging."
"Challenging" hasn't stopped the company before, though, and they proved that yet again.
Despite the difficulties heaped upon the Falcon 9 first stage during this attempt, it still pulled off the landing, again with seemingly little effort. Fast forward the video above to roughly 29 minutes into the broadcast to see the landing.
Below, you can watch the landing from a whole new perspective - and see what it would be like to be looking down as you clung to the side of the rocket on reentry!