SpaceX sent Indonesia’s Merah Putih telecommunications satellite into orbit tonight, marking the first reuse of its new-generation Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket booster.
Liftoff came on time at 1:19 a.m. ET Tuesday (10:19 p.m. PT Monday) after a trouble-free countdown at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Minutes after launch, the booster flew itself back down for an at-sea touchdown on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
The launch and landing kicked off a new chapter in SpaceX’s quest to increase rocket reusability and reduce the cost of access to space. The company says its Block 5 booster can be reused 10 times, a significant step up from the now-retired Block 4 version.
Tonight’s focus on the refurbished, soot-stained booster stole the spotlight from Merah Putih, an SSL-built satellite that’s designed to provide a range of telecommunication services from geostationary orbit, including mobile broadband access across Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
The booster was the first Block 5 first stage to fly, and helped put Bangladesh’s Banghabandu-1 telecom satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit back in May. It was successfully recovered and spruced up for tonight’s rerun of the GTO launch profile.
As in May, the reflown first-stage booster relit its engines after stage separation, and went through a series of burns to set down on the drone ship, christened “Of Course I Still Love You.” Meanwhile, the second stage continued onward and went through its own follow-up firing to send Merah Putih into its intended orbit.
Launch commentator Lauren Lyons said the booster would be prepared for its third launch later this year. “This is possible due to those Block 5 upgrades, which brings SpaceX closer to its goal of full and rapid rocket reusability,” she said on tonight’s webcast, which was watched by more than 25,000 YouTube users at its peak.
SpaceX has tried to advance that reusability campaign by making as-yet unsuccessful attempts to recover the Falcon 9’s nose cone, or fairing, after West Coast launches. But such attempts haven’t yet been tried for East Coast missions like tonight’s. The company’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said engineers are also working on ways to recover the Falcon 9’s second stage.
Musk has said Block 5 will be the last major iteration for the Falcon 9. Attention will soon shift to the Falcon Heavy and the development of an even bigger launch vehicle known as the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket.
The Falcon 9 Block 5 and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are destined to be used for launching astronauts to the space station, starting as early as next April. Uncrewed tests of the full human-rated launch system still have to be completed, but each successful Block 5 launch gives NASA (and SpaceX) greater confidence.