SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship at sea after launching it into space early Friday morning. It’s the third time the company has recovered the vehicle post-launch, and the second time the rocket has landed intact on the ship. Now, SpaceX has both demonstrated that it can land the Falcon 9 at sea, and that the company can repeat the process.
The logistics for this mission made sticking the landing unlikely, SpaceX said on Monday, but CEO Elon Musk upgraded the chances to “maybe even” just before launch. Today’s mission sent a Japanese communications satellite to a very high orbit above Earth — called a geostationary transfer orbit. Because of the satellite’s destination, SpaceX originally said that the rocket would be “subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating, making a successful landing unlikely.”
Previously, the company had only been able to recover its Falcon 9 twice post-launch, after making multiple landing attempts over the past year and a half. The first success was in December, when the rocket touched down at a ground-based spaceport in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The second landing occurred in April, but that time the Falcon 9 landed on a floating drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
A short time after the launch, SpaceX confirmed that not only did its Falcon 9 make a perfect landing, but it deployed its satellite correctly.
This was SpaceX’s fifth attempt to land the rocket at sea, and the company will continue to attempt ocean landings for its next few launches too, according to Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of mission assurance for SpaceX. SpaceX keeps trying to land at sea, because it’s sometimes the only option for recovering the vehicle. Missions that launch heavy payloads or go to high orbits use up a lot of fuel during the initial take off, leaving less fuel for the landing. And landing at sea requires a lot less fuel than landing on land (which we explain here).
Perfecting these sea landings is an important step for SpaceX, especially since the company hopes to land and reuse as many Falcon 9 rockets as possible. SpaceX has said that somewhere between half and two-thirds of its launches will need to be at sea, but if it keeps successfully landing rockets, it’s going to need somewhere bigger to put them — ironically, its hangar is running out of space.