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SpaceX Falcon landing
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster stands on a drone ship after landing. (Credit: SpaceX)

For the third time in a row, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster sent a payload into space and then came back for a landing on an oceangoing platform. But this time, the booster was a little shaken up.

Today’s launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida put the Thaicom 8 telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit.

Minutes after liftoff at 5:40 p.m. ET (2:40 p.m. PT), the Falcon’s first stage fell away from the second stage. While the second stage continued into orbit with the satellite, the first stage went through a series of maneuvers aimed at braking its supersonic descent and putting itself down on an autonomous drone ship hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.

Today’s success rounded out what could be called a hat trick in rocket reusability. SpaceX pulled off its first at-sea touchdown on April 8, and did it again on the night of May 5.

This one was a nail-biter: The launch to a high orbit meant the booster had to re-enter the atmosphere at an incredibly high speed.

In a series of tweets, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the booster was roughed up when it landed on the drone ship, known as “Of Course I Still Love You.”

When a webcam showed the 156-foot-tall booster standing intact, albeit listing slightly to the left, a crowd of employees watching from SpaceX’s headquarters in California erupted in cheers.

Over the next few days, the drone ship will head back to shore at Cape Canaveral, hopefully with the booster still standing upright. That booster would then undergo testing and potential refurbishment for another launch.

SpaceX already has three recovered rockets in its processing facility at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Last December, SpaceX executed its first successful rocket touchdown on a land-based pad in Florida, but the company wants to perfect the at-sea routine because that’s what will be required for at least half of the Falcon 9’s missions.

Rocket reusability is a key part of Musk’s strategy to drive down the cost of access to orbit and blaze a trail for sending thousands of settlers to Mars in the decades ahead.

Closer to home, Thaicom 8 is expected to settle into a geostationary orbit and provide communication services to South Asia and Southeast Asia for at least the next 15 years.

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