SpaceX successfully launched an SES-9 communications satellite into orbit but, as predicted, was unable to stick the landing of its Falcon 9 rocket’s reusable first stage.
Liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida came at 6:35 p.m. EST on March 4, after a series of delays the past two weeks due to poor weather and other problems.
Finally, the Falcon 9 was prepared for liftoff a fifth time and the launch came off in textbook fashion. Word came soon after that the returning first stage had hit its off-shore landing barge too hard and burned up about 10 minutes post-launch.
But the landing attempt was only a secondary objective for SpaceX, and its customer’s pricey SES-9 reached final orbit just over half hour post-liftoff. The Boeing-built SES 9 will be the seventh satellite in a constellation SES uses to provide communications services to a 20-country region in the Asia Pacific.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk, like a presidential candidate managing expectations before a primary contest, had warned the sea landing was unlikely to succeed in the SES mission due to higher thrust levels demanded by an 11th-hour decision to place the satellite into a higher orbit than originally planned. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based company previously landed a Falcon first stage on a land-based site at Cape Canaveral but has yet to replicate that success on a floating sea barge, a landing protocol it wants available as an option on future missions.
“Rocket landed hard on the droneship,” Musk tweeted afterwards. “Didn’t expect this one to work.” He added that prospects for a successful landing would be better in the future.
Dependably reusable rockets would greatly bring down launch costs for SpaceX and its customers. Luxembourg-based SES even has expressed interest in purchasing a used rocket from SpaceX.
The Falcon 9 used to carry launch the SES satellite into space was an “upgraded” version boasting 30 percent more thrust capacity. SpaceX recently won a certification for its latest Falcon 9 for military satellite launches.
The original Falcon rocket was cleared for such missions last summer. The company’s upgraded version had to be certified in anticipation of a new round of Air Force launch contracts to be put out for bid later this year.
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 and Delta rockets also are certified for military satellite launches, and the Centennial, Colo.-based company is expected to compete against SpaceX for the next round of sat-launch awards.
Falcon 9 photo: SpaceX