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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket returns to port


Photo credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
Photo credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

Riding into port aboard a floating platform, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket booster arrived back at Cape Canaveral early Tuesday after sticking a historic landing at sea last week, kicking off a series of inspections and tests before engineers ready it for launch again.

A small crowd of SpaceX employees, photographers and space enthusiasts welcomed the 15-story rocket booster to Port Canaveral around 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT).

A tugboat towed the rocket and its landing platform through the channel leading to a dock where SpaceX technicians will hoist the first stage booster off the ship and on to a stand on the north side of the inlet to Port Canaveral. The ground team will retract or remove the rocket’s four aluminum-carbon fiber landing legs, then rotate it horizontal for transport to a nearby hangar.

The Falcon 9’s destination is unconfirmed, but SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said Friday the rocket’s first stage will likely go to launch pad 39A — a former shuttle launch facility now leased by SpaceX — for a series of engine firings to verify its flight readiness.

Photo credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
Photo credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

The objective: Fly the first stage booster again, perhaps as soon as June.

“We’re going to do a series of test fires,” Musk told reporters after Friday’s launch. “We’re hoping to do that at the Cape, rather than transport it to Texas (SpaceX’s rocket test facility), and then bring it back. Our plan is to basically fire it 10 times in a row on the ground. If things look good at that point, then it’s qualified for reuse and launch. We’re hoping to re-launch on an orbital mission in … June.”

SpaceX has not identified what spacecraft will fly on the used booster, but Musk said he hopes a paying customer will agree to sign up for the mission.

Officials from SES, a Luxembourg-based communications satellite operator, have repeatedly said they are interested in flying a payload on a reused Falcon 9 rocket. But their next satellite will not be ready for launch until late this year.

Missions on the Falcon 9 manifest in June include a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with Taiwan’s Formosat 5 Earth observation platform and a package of microsatellites aboard a Sherpa carrier developed by Spaceflight Industries.

Photo credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
Photo credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

SpaceX’s next cargo delivery mission to the space station is scheduled for late June, carrying several tons of supplies and experiments, plus a critical docking adapter for future arrivals of U.S. commercial crew capsules.

The Thaicom 8 communications satellite is finishing up tests at Orbital ATK’s spacecraft factory in Virginia for a launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in mid-2016.

Demonstrating the Falcon 9’s first stage can be recovered and reused is a major leap in SpaceX’s goal of slashing the cost of spaceflight.

“I think it’s another step towards the stars,” Musk said. “In order for us to really open up access to space, we’ve got to achieve full and rapid reusability, and being able to do that for the primary rocket booster is going to be a huge impact on cost.”

The Falcon 9’s upper stage, which goes into orbit on each launch, and the rocket’s clamshell-like payload enclosure are still thrown away after every flight. Musk said SpaceX is working on retrieving the payload fairing, which costs several million dollars.

In the meantime, SpaceX hopes to improve its success rate at recovering first stage boosters.

The Falcon 9’s first stage typically shuts down about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, and its landing aimpoint depends on the weight of the mission’s passenger and the type of orbit targeted. For Falcon 9 rockets delivering heavy satellites to high-altitude orbits — like most large telecommunications satellites — a landing at sea is required.

Launches into lower orbits several hundred miles up need less fuel and travel slower at stage separation, leaving enough reserve propellant to turn around and come back to land at facilities at Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg.

“It will still take us a few years to make that smooth and make it efficient, but I think it’s proven that it can work,” Musk said. “There probably will be some failure in the future, but we’ll iron those out and get to the point where it’s routine to bring it back, and where the only changes to the rocket are to maybe hose it down and clean it, give it a wash, and add the propellant and fly again.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket returns to port

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