SpaceX successfully launched a Thaicom 8 communications satellite into orbit onboard its flagship Falcon 9 rocket on Thursday, and proceeded to successfully land the rocket back on Earth via a droneship sitting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s the company’s fifth rocket launch of the year, and the third time it has completed a droneship landing.
“Rocket landing speed was close to design max & used up contingency crush core, hence back & forth motion. Prob ok, but some risk of tipping,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted on Twitter after the launch.
This was also the 30th mission overall and the 25th to use the flagship Falcon 9 rocket.
More importantly, the company safely landed its Falcon 9 rocket after sending it up to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) — about 22,236 miles above the surface of the earth, and more than 18 times the maximum height of low-Earth orbit (where most of SpaceX’s recent Falcon 9 launches have gone to).
A lot more fuel is required to send something up to GTO — a high-elliptical orbit that’s optimal for communications satellites. A Falcon 9 first stage burn will shed a lot more fuel to get to that altitude, leaving less fuel available for the controlled engine burns required to safely navigate the rocket towards the platform and ensure a soft landing.
Of course, SpaceX’s most recent mission, on May 6, was also a GTO launch, and that Falcon 9 rocket stuck the landing, too, so this isn’t totally new territory for the company. Still, a successful launch today is incredibly encouraging and gives SpaceX much more confidence after a very difficult 2015, when the company saw two attempted rocket landings end in failure, and one launch result in a catastrophic explosion.
Proving the capability of a vertical rocket landing is part of the company’s plan to make spaceflight much less expensive by making rockets reusable. The company has not yet actually relaunched any of the Falcon 9s it has sent up into space, but Musk told reporters in April he hopes the company can fire one of those babies up again in the summer.
Up next for SpaceX is a launch on June 16 to send up two Boeing satellites into GTO, as well as an adapter to the International Space Station (in low-Earth orbit). This launch will attempt to land a rocket back to the surface itself for the first time since last December.
Meanwhile, perhaps in a not-so-friendly effort to steal some of the spotlight from his competitors, Jeff Bezos announced Thursday that his spaceflight company, Blue Origin, was in the process of finalizing plans to intentionally crash during the next test flight. We’re looking forward to seeing what Musk’s response might be.