Ever since the failure of the first couple test flights, have you even heard SpaceX completely falter on another landing in the recent past? No, right! Then you can add another successful landing of the Falcon 9 on a floating drone ship to the list.
Yesterday, accounting another huge feat, SpaceX launched a Japanese communications satellite JCSAT-16 into orbit from Cape Canaveral and landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket back on the drone ship floating in the ocean. Today’s particularly challenging landing marks the private space agencies fourth successful landing on a drone ship. It is also the fifth successful rocket recovery mission for SpaceX this year.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 14, 2016
Like the previous THIACOM 8 satellite launch, this one was also particularly difficult because the Falcon 9 had to launch the Japanese communication satellite into the GTO(Geostationary Transfer Orbit) and then land back onto a floating drone ship. If you recall, this launch and land scenario is especially difficult because the satellite had to be sent to a higher orbit as compared to the tests which had been conducted in Lower Earth Orbit. The launched rocket had a narrower margin to operate while making the high-speed steep return and had to take an elliptical route on its way back to the drone ship.
With the experience being gained with each successive landing, today’s launch accounted for the sixth successful rocket recovery in the past two years. Four of these recoveries have been made using a drone ship at sea, while two of these recoveries have been conducted on land. Though, it is believed that drone ship recoveries are much difficult as compared to land-based recoveries, but SpaceX seems to have a higher rate of successful landing at sea rather than land.
While ground does have more space as compared to the sea, the drone ships can alter their positions in real time to make it easier for the rocket to find its landing spot — rather like catching the rocket as it falls.
JSCAT-16 Communication Satellite
If you take yesterday’s launch into account, SpaceX has managed to launch a total of three satellites into the GTO this year. The latest successfully deployed payload — JSCAT-16, is a commercial satellite developed by Space Systems Loral for the JSAT Corporation.
The payload had a launch weight of 4,600 kg, and a power production capacity of 8.5 kW with a 15-year design life. It will become part of a 16-satellite constellations that will be used to provide communications and data transfer services over the Asia-Pacific region.
This was the second JSCAT satellite launch for the year and it was the second time the company had used the services of SpaceX to launch their satellite into orbit. According to the private space agency, the communication satellite made it into GTO with 36,000 kilometer(or around 22,300 miles) apogee (or at its highest point in orbit).
SpaceX, it seems, has learned some important lessons after losing billion dollar booster due to a minor landing gear failure. You need to consider the fact that each successful rocket recovery saves the company around $60 million, so it is a cause for celebration — both from the economic and engineering perspectives.
But, the important fact to notice about SpaceX’s operations is that the company has not re-used even a single rocket booster it successfully landed since its inception. And they are now beginning to crowd the storage space provided to the company at the Kennedy Space Center. We can, however, expect the company to soon use one of the recovered boosters on a second mission. It has recently conducted a test fire for one such rocket booster, but we’ll need to wait for performance data to determine if the rocket is worth a second launch or not.
Elon Musk, the man behind this humongous project, has projected to complete over 18 launches this particular year — which is triple the number of launches it completed in 2015. With this successful mission in the hindsight, SpaceX is now probably gearing up for the next launch which is just a short three weeks away. The company, however, has proven it’s worth to secure permission to use a recovered booster in a mission to the International Space Station(that’s some great news!)