By Tiffany Jeung and Nick Lucchesi
on
Filed Under Aerospace & Elon Musk

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has flown and landed on a drone ship floating in the ocean three times, a first for Elon Musk’s aerospace company, as it carried out a mission that’s newsworthy in its own right.

“Our first stage is covered in soot,” said SpaceX engineer Kate Tice ahead of the mission during a live webcast. “This is the first time that SpaceX will be flying a Falcon 9 for the third time.”

That dirty rocket first flew in May 2018 for the Bangabandhu Satellite-1 mission, and then again in August 2018 for the Merah Putih satellite mission, before going to space and back on Monday.

This photo of the Falcon 9 that went to space and back on December 3, 2018 shows the soot it's accumulated during its two previous missions in 2018.
This photo of the Falcon 9 that went to space and back on December 3, 2018 shows the soot it's accumulated during its two previous missions in 2018.

A record 64 satellites joined the roughly 4,800 satellites already in Low Earth Orbit, making the SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission the largest celestial Uber Pool attempted by a U.S. launch vehicle. (The global top record goes to India whose PSLV rocket launched 104 satellites into orbit in February 2017.)

Fifteen microsats and 49 CubeSats make up the crew of satellites that come from 17 different countries. As a type of SmallSats, microsats weigh between 10 to 100 kilograms, while CubeSats are a popular class of nanosatellite weighing 1 to 10 kilograms with a standardized base size of 10x10x10 cms.

The launch on Monday.

The SSO-A’s passengers come bearing a variety of payloads. University spacecraft and technology demonstrations make up the bulk of the spacecraft, but they have some special company: One piece of high school hardware joined the ride, along with a greenhouse (Look out for space tomatoes in a health food store near you) and human ashes from the startup Elysium. Who knew that a space burial would be cheaper than an Earth funeral?

Two art exhibits also made their way to Low Earth Orbit. The Nevada Museum of Art and Global Western backed the first, a project created by the privacy-obsessed Trevor Paglen named Orbital Reflector.

It’s not be the first time Paglen’s artwork has ventured skyward. In an attempt to create a monument that could outlive Earth itself, Paglen sent The Last Pictures, a set of 100 photographs in a micro-etched disc and plated in gold, into deep space in 2012 on the EchoStar XVI probe. For the SSO-A, Paglen created an inflatable, reflective sculpture designed to reflect sunlight and evoke a sense of reflection and wonder from the humans who see it from Earth.

The second artistic satellite comes from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who is sending a 24-karat gold jar containing a statue of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African-American astronaut.

SpaceX Continues the Reusability Model

In addition to the mission’s unique payloads, the machinery delivering them also makes SpaceX’s endeavor exceptional. The SSO-A mission involves the twice-used first stage of the rocket, and if successful, will use the booster, Core 1046, for the third time. That brings the Falcon 9’s total flight count to 18 this year, surpassing any other rocket worldwide.

To deliver the 64 satellites while avoiding cosmic collision, SpaceX designed a complex payload stack made of two main elements, upper and lower free flyers that release satellites in sequence. Over the course of five hours, the satellites will join LEO, home of the International Space Station.

'Just Read the Instructions'
The SpaceX droneship 'Just Read the Instructions' was named after a reference in a science-fiction novel. 

The Falcon-9 typically lands in two ways: flying back to its launch site, or landing at sea on a drone-operated barge the size of a football field. This time, due to the launch of a national security mission back at Vandenberg Air Force Base, SpaceX is opting for the latter, aiming to land on the Just Read The Instructions drone ship on the Pacific Ocean. The previous two landings for this particular rocket were on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship, which is off the coast of Florida.

Also, SpaceX attempted to catch the rocket’s fairing — the $6 million nose cone that covers the payload during launch — with its Mr. Steven ship, a floating vessel specially designed to catch the fairing as it falls back to Earth. As of this writing, SpaceX had not updated the public on the outcome of that mission objective. The below video shows it in action:

Musk may not quite be on schedule for his promise to deliver a 24 hour turnaround time for a rocket from landing to launch, but SpaceX is pioneering the path from to take reusability from surprising to standard.

Photos via SpaceX