SpaceX sticks 11th rocket landing after launching first used Dragon capsule4 min read

Five ground landings attempted and five ground landings achieved

Another one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets successfully landed back on Earth this evening after launching cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. This time, the rocket touched down at the company’s landing site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, called Landing Zone 1.

That means SpaceX’s success streak of recovering its vehicles on solid ground continues. So far, all five of the company’s attempts to land on land have worked just fine. Now, SpaceX is in possession of 11 Falcon 9 rockets that have flown to space and back — either by landing on ground or on one of the company’s drone ships at sea.

SpaceX’s landings may seem fairly routine at this point, but the cargo the rocket was carrying before it landed was pretty significant — or at least, what was carrying the cargo was unique. For this flight, SpaceX used a Dragon cargo capsule that had already been to space before. The Dragon previously flew on SpaceX’s fourth cargo resupply mission for NASA back in September 2014. It remained in space at the ISS for nearly a month before returning to Earth and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. It’s the first time a Dragon has been reused for a flight, making SpaceX the first private company to send a vehicle into orbit for a second time.

The Dragon is carrying around 6,000 pounds of supplies and science experiments for the crew of the ISS. That includes a group of fruit flies to test out how the cardiovascular system functions in microgravity, as well as a group of mice to study bone loss in the space environment. Some unique technologies are also riding up inside the Dragon’s trunk — the unpressurized structure attached to the spacecraft that provides support and houses the vehicle’s solar panels. The trunk contains an instrument called NICER, which will eventually be mounted to the outside of the space station to look for neutron stars, as well as a specialized solar panel called ROSA which can be unfurled a bit like a flag. The spacecraft is slated to rendezvous with the station on Monday.

Eventually, SpaceX hopes to keep reusing its Dragon cargo capsules moving forward. That way, the company can at some point shut down production of the vehicle and focus on the production of another spacecraft: the upgraded Dragon. That vehicle, known as Crew Dragon or Dragon 2, will be able to carry people to and from the ISS. A future iteration of the spacecraft will also be able to land propulsively, rather than rely strictly on parachutes to lower down to Earth. Thrusters embedded in the hull of Dragon will allow the vehicle to make a controlled descent to the ground.

And the Dragon cargo vehicles aren’t the only hardware that SpaceX is going to start reusing more often. With a growing stockpile of recovered rockets, the company is slowly starting to send them back into space. SpaceX launched its first previously flown Falcon 9 in Marchand plans to fly its next used booster in a couple of weeks to launch a satellite for Bulsatcom. The rockets and Dragon capsules have to be inspected and potentially refurbished before they fly again, which requires time and money. But SpaceX is hoping to reduce that turnaround time, potentially saving them a good chunk of money in manufacturing costs in the process.

SpaceX says it could re-fly as many as six used Falcon 9s before the end of 2017. And it looks like there may be a lot of opportunity for the company to do so. SpaceX has been upping the cadence of its launches as of late. Its last launch was just two weeks ago, and its next one is tentatively two weeks away as well. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell promised the company would increase its launch frequency this year, and it looks like that may actually be the case.

Today’s launch marked the 100th mission from NASA’s LC-39A, a historic site at the space agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The same pad was also used to launch the first crewed mission to the Moon as well as the last Shuttle mission.

Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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