SpaceX had its second successful at-sea return of a first stage rocket last night, bringing a Falcon 9 back down from orbit. But the feat was even harder than last month’s successful return: the rocket came down at 4,400 miles per hour.
Those speeds owed to the demanding launch. SpaceX carried a television communications satellite, JCSAT-14, to geostationary orbit aboard a Falcon 9. Earlier this week, the company remarked that it wasn’t sure they’d be able to pull off the landing due to the high speeds. The rocket, at one point, traveled 37,000 miles per hour to get to that high orbit.
Rocket reentry is a lot faster and hotter than last time, so odds of making it are maybe even, but we should learn a lot either way
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 6, 2016
In the end, as you can see in this video, they still pulled it off:
SpaceX is just one of many companies working on reusable vehicles. Blue Origin, which has tried to keep up a competition, has recently returned a suborbital rocket a few times. And Sierra Nevada has a small-scale space shuttle called the Dreamchaser which launches on a rocket but lands on a runway. It will begin making uncrewed ISS resupplies in 2019, and may move up eventually to crewed missions.
It may seem an odd fit to discuss the SpaceX landing in Astronomy, but reusable launch vehicles could potentially drive down the cost of space launches, making space observatories cheaper and more viable. Of course, many of the same expectations came with the space shuttle program, which featured a reusable vehicle and RS-25 first stage engines attached to the back of the craft. The expectations of cost saving remained somewhat unfilled in the end, however.
NASA’s next-gen planet finder, the Transiting Exoplanet Sky Survey, will launch aboard a Falcon 9, continuing on with the work that Kepler started. When that launches next year, first stage returns may be old hat — eliciting little more than a yawn from space enthusiasts.
You can watch the full webcast of the SpaceX launch and return below.