SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched a satellite for a Japanese communication company tonight, and then made a bull’s-eye landing on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.
The two-stage Falcon 9 carried the JCSAT-16 satellite into the night sky from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 1:26 a.m. ET Sunday (10:26 p.m. PT Saturday).
After stage separation, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster relit its engines and went through a series of maneuvers to land on an oceangoing platform christened “Of Course I Still Love You.”
SpaceX’s webcast missed the precise moment of touchdown but showed the booster standing upright on the deck of the drone ship moments afterward – almost exactly on top of the stylized “X” that served as a target.
A little more than a half-hour after launch, SpaceX announced that JCSAT-16 had been deployed into its intended geostationary transfer orbit, reaching a high point of 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers).
As commentator-engineer Kate Tice wrapped up the webcast, she said tonight’s coverage was dedicated to Kenny Baker, the diminutive actor who played the role of the robot R2-D2 in the original “Star Wars” movies. Baker died today at the age of 81.
The JCSAT-16 launch was executed a little more than three months after the California-based company put JCSAT-14 into orbit for SKY Perfect JSAT, which is one of the Asia-Pacific region’s leading satellite operators. JCSAT-16 will serve as an in-orbit backup for SKY Perfect JSAT’s fleet, which provides video distribution and other data services in Asia, Russia, Oceania, the Middle East and North America.
Tonight’s touchdown marked the fourth successful at-sea landing for a Falcon 9 booster – a tally that also includes May’s touchdown after the JCSAT-14 launch.
Success isn’t easy, particularly for the high-energy launch that’s required to put satellites like the 5-ton JCSAT spacecraft into a geostationary transfer orbit. The booster from the JCSAT-14 launch may have been too damaged to send into space again, according to Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder. It’s currently being used in ground tests.
In addition to the four successful at-sea landings, two Falcon 9 first stages have been brought back for touchdowns in SpaceX’s landing zone in Florida. The decision to bring the rocket back to land vs. sea depends on the rocket trajectory required for a given payload.
SpaceX wants to recover and reuse its boosters to drive down the cost of access to space. So far, SpaceX hasn’t reflown any of its recovered boosters, but the company hopes to do so starting later this year.
If SpaceX can perfect rocket reusability, that would mark a huge advance toward Musk’s vision of sending thousands of settlers to Mars starting in the 2020s. Musk is to elaborate on that vision next month in Mexico during the International Astronautical Congress.