SpaceX kicked the year off with a textbook launch and first-stage recovery. On Friday, Elon Musk’s rocket company lifted ten satellites into orbit with a flight-proven Falcon 9 at 10:32 a.m. Eastern. The launch system took off from the Vanderberg Air Force Base in California, and then half of it touched back down on the Just Read the Instructions drone ship in the Pacific ocean minutes after launch.
The satellites aboard are the final pieces of the Iridium NEXT commercial communications constellation. They will be joining 65 other orbiters that SpaceX launched into space over the course of the last two years. Dubbed the Iridium-8 mission, this will be the last time SpaceX will launch the Virginia-based company’s tech into space for the time being. And it said goodbye in style.
It’s been over a month since SpaceX has landed a Falcon 9 first stage, but this time it made a flawless comeback. After the rocket breached the upper atmosphere, the lower booster detached from the launch system and began its controlled descent by firing all three of its engines to slow down.
The booster positioned itself vertically and deployed its titanium grid fins to perch itself atop the Just Read the Instructions droneship. The only hiccup? Fight before it touched down the event’s livestream cut out, a reoccurring issue in multiple Falcon 9 landings.
Principal integration engineer John Insprucker, who hosted the live stream, said this anti-climactic glitch is because the “engine exhaust degrades the radio frequency signal.” But regardless of some camera issues, the first stage landed smack dab in the middle of the droneship.
“There it is right in the middle of the bull’s eye,” exclaimed Insprucker.
It was the neatest landing the company’s pulled off in the last few months. SpaceX did not even attempt to recover the Falcon 9 used in its previous mission on December 23. And before that, a Falcon 9 missed the droneship entirely during a landing attempt on December 10.
Musk’s rocket company is also working on recovering its fairings, barriers that protect the payload as it blasts into space, using a boat with a massive net named Mr. Steven. While the vessel has gotten agonizingly close to catching the rocket components in tests and even during missions, it also sat Friday’s launch out.
It’s a good thing SpaceX seems to have re-captured its landing mojo, as the next launch is a much bigger deal. In February, a Falcon 9 will launch the first uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule, which will carry NASA astronauts into space later in 2019 if all goes well.