Vid SpaceX very nearly landed the lower stage of its Falcon 9 rocket in one piece at sea on Tuesday – as the capsule payload of the rocket successfully made its way towards the International Space Station.
The rocket, carrying a Dragon cargo capsule loaded with supplies for the space station, blasted off on schedule, and separated minutes later. The lower stage of the Falcon 9 is the most costly part of the rocket, which is why SpaceX had hoped to land it gently on a floating landing pad potentially for reuse.
Ascent successful. Dragon enroute to Space Station. Rocket landed on droneship, but too hard for survival.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 14, 2015
The rocket lifted off at 1310 ET (2010 UTC, 1310 PDT) from the Cape Canaveral launch pad in Florida after a tense countdown. Clouds again threatened to wash out the launch but held off just long enough to allow the SpaceX team to light the fires.
The first stage of the Falcon rocket shut down its engines and separated after three minutes before rotating 180 degrees using cold gas thrusters. The engine then fired up for a short burn to slow the rocket down and then the same thrusters maneuvered it into a horizontal position ready for a vertical landing on SpaceX's seagoing barge "Just read the instructions".
As the second stage continued to drive the Dragon cargo capsule towards the International Space Station, sensor stations in Canada picked up the falling first stage and tracked it back to Earth. It's not known how hard the rocket hit the deck, but the barge is unmanned during landing attempts so no injuries are likely.
Looks like Falcon landed fine, but excess lateral velocity caused it to tip over post landing pic.twitter.com/eJWzN6KSJa— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 14, 2015
Footage of the Falcon's lower-stage landing attempt will be recovered and posted online in a couple of days.
At time of launch the ISS was crossing Western Australia 257 miles up. The Dragon capsule will take three days to catch up to it. The cargo pod is expected to rendezvous with the ISS on Friday at 0700 ET (1400 UTC) and remain in position for five weeks.
The astronauts will have plenty of time to unload the cargo pod, which is primarily full of science experiments. These include drugs to combat osteoporosis during long periods in free fall or zero gravity, as well as testing a new material that could replace damaged human muscle tissue.
But top of the astronaut's unpacking list is almost certain to be the specially designed coffee machine, developed on the suggestion of Italians who visited the ISS in 2014. The "ISSpresso" machine was developed by Lavazza and Argotec and can percolate small cups of caffeinated goodness for the inhabitants.
Once the Dragon capsule is empty, the ISS crew will pack it with completed science experiments, as well as trash that has accumulated since the last resupply mission. The capsule will then splash down in the Pacific for seaborne collection.
Eventually SpaceX is going to land a Falcon rocket for reuse. Yesterday Musk gave the landing mission a 50 per cent chance of success, but with more launches the odds of success increase, and the team thinks there's an 80 per cent chance of making it this year.
SpaceX isn't too bothered. The primary mission is successful deliveries into orbit and, once again, the Falcon has proved itself a reliable rocket system. Getting the first stage back to Earth will be a bonus, but Musk is prepared to play the long game on that front.
In the meantime the Dragon capsule's solar panels have deployed safely and the cargo pod is on its way to the ISS right on schedule. ®
Water from the taps on the ISS – which will naturally be used to fill up the new space-presso machine – are sourced in large part from the recycled urine of the crew, which has led to many rib-tickling astro-nautical jokes about "yesterday's coffee". At least today's coffee will soon be tastier than yesterday's. -Ed