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Elon Musk’s private space firm SpaceX has been working on reusable rocket technology for a few years now. It started with the custom Grasshopper vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) system, but more recently the company has moved on to implementing the lessons learned from the Grasshopper to make the full-sized Falcon 9 land in a science-fictiony upright position. The Falcon 9 landing system has just had its first real life test, and it performed exactly as expected.
Most multi-stage rockets like the Falcon 9 separate the stages as the fuel is expended, allowing the payload to continue into orbit with less mass dragging it down. These stages are usually allowed to splashdown in the ocean, which is pretty wasteful when you’re doing a lot of launches. The Falcon 9R (the R is for reusable) is intended to return most of the rocket safely to Earth where it can be set up for another launch in short order.
The Falcon 9R will lift off like any other Falcon 9, but when the first stage separates, it won’t just fall into the ocean. Instead, it ignites the main engines again to slow itself as it reenters the atmosphere. The engines are started again as the stage nears the ground so it can touch down on the extendable landing legs. This is the procedure that was tested successfully by SpaceX after delivering six ORBCOMM satellites to orbit.
The test took place over the Atlantic Ocean because no one was sure it would work, and you don’t want a rocket to crash on the launchpad if you can avoid it. The Falcon 9 stage aligned itself correctly and dropped its speed to almost nothing, so it couldhave landed had it not been over water. The rocket slid slowly into the water in an upright position, then promptly tipped over as intended. The video above details the landing, but ice on the camera makes it hard to see what’s going on.
The Falcon 9 isn’t the ideal rocket for reusable vehicles, but it’s a good stopgap. High velocity payloads like geostationary satellites require more thrust to get into orbit, so the Falcon 9 will be running on fumes as it nears the ground. In the future, the planned Falcon 9 Heavy will be used for those missions. Until then, more Falcon 9s will have to be sacrificed.