A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched two satellites into orbit this morning, but the company failed to land the vehicle on a floating drone ship at sea afterward. Prior to the launch, the company said this landing would be difficult, since the rocket was going to a very high orbit known as geostationary transfer orbit, or GTO. Sending satellites to GTO uses up a lot of fuel during the initial ascent, leaving less fuel to pull off the vehicle's return.
The vehicle's landing caused a bit of drama
This Falcon 9 landing caused a bit of drama, since SpaceX wasn't sure at first if the vehicle actually made it down in one piece. Once the rocket landed, it shook the drone ship pretty violently, causing the ship's onboard camera to freeze. The last shots of the vehicle before the camera cut out showed the Falcon 9 standing upright on the ship, but there were also some flames around the bottom.
Afterward, a SpaceX employee announced on the company's webcast that the vehicle was indeed lost. "We can say that Falcon 9 was lost in this attempt," said Kate Tice, a process improvement engineer for SpaceX. Later CEO Elon Musk confirmed that the Falcon 9 suffered an RUD, or a rapid unscheduled disassembly. That's "Musk speak" for an explosion.
Ascent phase & satellites look good, but booster rocket had a RUD on droneship— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 15, 2016
Later, Musk said that the problem had to do with low thrust in the one of the rocket's three main engines, and that all the engines need to be operating at full capacity to handle this type of landing. He noted that the company is already working on upgrades to the Falcon 9 so that it can handle this type of "thrust shortfall" in the future.
The video of the landing will be released later, according to Musk, once the company gets access to the drone ship's camera. Musk said it could be the hardest landing they've had yet, but the drone ship is still okay. However, the failure does put an end to SpaceX’s recent landing streak. The company has pulled off successful landings after its past three launches, all of which touched down on the drone ship. So far the company has landed four Falcon 9s in total — three at sea and one on solid ground.
SpaceX will have many more chances to land its rockets again soon
SpaceX will have many more chances to land its rockets again soon. The company will launch a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA on July 16th. After that launch, SpaceX will try to land the Falcon 9 on solid ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida — something it hasn’t attempted since its first rocket landing in December. And after that, SpaceX has another satellite launch slated for August.
Meanwhile, the company still has an impressive stockpile of landed rockets in its possession. SpaceX is keeping its four recovered rockets in a hangar at Launch Complex 39A, a launch site at Kennedy Space Center in Florida that the company leases from NASA. That hangar can only store five Falcon 9 rockets at a time, though. So whenever SpaceX does land its next rocket in Florida, the building will be at full capacity.