The Falcon 9, the rocket that's reliably served SpaceX missions for the past decade, has been photographed landing in impressive quality.
SpaceX launched the B1060 booster on its first mission on June 30 at 4:10 p.m. Eastern time, taking off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Staton in Florida. On board was a third-generation Global Positioning System satellite, as part of the United States Space Force's planned upgrades to the constellation used by everything from jet planes to smartphones. Little wonder why CEO Elon Musk marked the launch by posting on Twitter that "your GPS just got slightly better."
Following the launch, the booster successfully landed on the droneship Just Read the Instructions. Three new images of the landing, shared via SpaceX's Twitter account Monday, give fans an impressively clear view of the booster coming in to land.
Around five minutes after the company shared the images, fans on the SpaceX dedicated subreddit started a discussion around the new photos. One of the most notable developments with these images is the clear view of the octograbber at the base of the booster. This robot, SpaceXFleet explains, is remotely sent out after a landing and uses its four arms to attach to the underside of the booster.
The octograbber helps secure the booster as the ship makes its way back to land. It's an issue that has hit the company before. Following the first Falcon Heavy commercial mission in April 2019, SpaceX lost the central booster for the triple-core vehicle into the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX didn't use the octograbber for that mission because the booster used a different mechanical interface to the Falcon 9. It was an expensive lesson in why the pictured robot is so critical to missions.
These booster landings are borderline commonplace now, but they hold the key to reducing the cost of space travel and funding more ambitious missions like a manned mission to Mars. The booster is estimated to comprise around $46.5 million of the total $62 million price tag associated with a Falcon 9 mission.
The company has rapidly perfected its landing abilities. It tried, and failed, to land its first booster back in 2013. Its first successful landing was in 2014. By 2017 it set a record for most boosters landed in a year with 15, a record it has yet to beat. This year SpaceX has successfully landed eight boosters.
All this is leading up to the Starship, SpaceX's under-development rocket designed to send humans to Mars. First unveiled under the name "BFR" in September 2017, the ship is designed to be fully reusable, using liquid oxygen and methane as its fuel. This would enable humans to travel to Mars, refuel using the planet's resources, and either return home or continue their journey further out into the solar system.
The Inverse analysis — The images are impressive, particularly because it's so hard to capture high-quality images from landings. YouTube channel "Primal Space" explained in June 2018 that these rocket landings tend to cut the live video feed used to televise rocket launches. That's because the vibrations from the landing cause the droneship to lose line of sight with satellites. The video tends to return once the vibrations reduce.
The images are also comparably rare due to the nature of sea-based landings. Land-based launches offer the opportunity for third parties to set up cameras and prepare for the big moment, a luxury not afforded to the confines of a droneship.
These photos are impressive, but if the Starship proves a success, they could become relatively commonplace.