Friday’s nighttime liftoff of an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Base was uneventful, after four aborted tries stretching over the past week. But returning the lower portion of the used rocket to earth didn’t unfold as officials of SpaceX, as the company is called, had hoped.
Less than three minutes after a flawless blastoff, the lower stage and its nine Merlin engines separated as planned while flying faster than 5,000 miles an hour and subsequently started a series of carefully programmed maneuvers to head back toward the earth. But the engines may have run out of fuel prematurely or were unable to slow down the rocket enough — problems the company previously had indicated were likely — and the booster slammed into its intended landing site.
Transmission of video images from the specially outfitted barge, some 400 miles off the Florida coast, stopped before the return sequence had ended, leaving reporters and others unsure of what transpired.
Roughly one hour later, Mr. Musk posted an update on Twitter confirming the landing attempt didn’t succeed. “Rocket landed hard on the drone ship,” he posted. “Didn’t expect this one to work,” he added, due to the high speed re-entering the atmosphere.
From the beginning, SpaceX officials and Mr. Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur who founded and controls the company, stressed that chances of a successful landing were remote due to the type of satellite launch, and the likelihood that the returning part of the rocket would be traveling too fast or wouldn’t have adequate fuel to position itself for a proper vertical touchdown.
SpaceX successfully landed a spent booster on land last December but that followed a mission to a lower orbit, which meant there was more fuel left in the tanks to slow down and position the returning first stage. The returning booster also was traveling at a slower velocity.
Despite the stumble in demonstrating rocket re-usability even under such difficult conditions, Friday’s flight was good news for the Southern California company, which projects launching a total of a dozen other government and commercial payloads in 2016. The roughly 12,000-pound satellite boosted into high-earth orbit for international satellite operator SES SA was the largest payload SpaceX has ever taken to such an altitude.
The souped-up version of the Falcon 9, including larger fuel tanks and greater thrust, appeared to operate exactly as designed.