SpaceX made rocket history on land last month but marked mixed results in its latest landing attempt, which this time targeted a barge buffeted by 15-foot waves in the Pacific.
The unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, situated 150 miles further north along the California coastline, at 10:42 a.m. PST Jan. 17. The Jason satellite — riding the rocket’s second stage — entered preliminary orbit about 10 minutes after liftoff, with the second-stage engine firing 45 minutes later to place the satellite into the desired final orbit.
“That’s it! The second stage has fired,” NASA TV confirmed at 11:39 a.m. PST. “Jason-3 is on its own.”
About a half hour after launch — or 15 minutes after the landing — SpaceX revealed that the Falcon first stage had been damaged in the attempt.
“It looks like the first stage hit its target but landed hard and broke a leg,” said a SpaceX commentator during company’s mission webcast.
That explanation was changed after further data review showed a landing leg had failed to lock into place. The landing itself was deemed sufficiently “soft.”
Early in the launch webcast, cheers could be heard at several intervals from a crowd of company employees gathered in Hawthorne to watch mission video. Things were much more muted after it became clear that the landing attempt was less than fully successful.
Still, the landing attempt had been billed as experimental, and the completed deployment of the Jason-3 will count as a notable success for SpaceX.
“First stage on target at drone ship but looks like hard landing; broke landing leg,” SpaceX said in a Twitter post retweeted by company founder Elon Musk. “Primary mission remains nominal.”
Musk later added that the failed landing wasn’t caused by excessive descent velocity. A landing leg lockout didn’t latch correctly, he said, causing the rocket to tip over after landing.
Then SpaceX tweeted: “After further data review, stage landed softly but leg 3 didn’t lockout. Was within 1.3 meters of drone ship center.”
The Jason-3 mission is international in scope, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Once the satellite is operative, it will allow continued measurements of ocean topography by agencies in the U.S. and Europe.
For up to five years, the satellite will measure sea heights and tropical cyclones. Data will support global fisheries management, weather forecasting and research into the oceanic effects of climate change.
Last month, SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 first stage on a land-based platform at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in the first-ever such landing involving an orbit-capable rocket. It marked the high point to date in the company’s push to make its rockets reusable and thus more cost-efficient.
Two previous attempts at a sea landing — both aiming for a barge floating off of Canaveral — hit their targets but resulted in fiery crashes. SpaceX wants its reusable rockets to be capable of landing both by land or sea to accommodate various mission needs and circumstances.
SpaceX emblazoned its latest landing target with the whimsical phrase, “Just Read the Instructions.” It appears further instructions may be necessary.