Dramatic video posted by SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk late Sunday shows the Falcon 9 rocket launched earlier in the day from California made a bulls-eye touchdown on a landing pad floating in the Pacific Ocean, but then keeled over and exploded when one of the booster's four landing legs didn't lock into place.
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Musk speculates that condensation from the heavy fog at the rocket's Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site may have caused ice to form, preventing the leg from latching.
"Impressive launch and SpaceX will soon make Falcon 9 landings routine - so good for space! Kudos SpaceX!" fellow tech titan Jeff Bezos posted on Twitter.
Bezos' Blue Origin space company is likewise developing reusable rockets.
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Last month, the first-stage of a SpaceX Falcon rocket returned to its Cape Canaveral, Florida launch site, touching down on a landing pad, the first time a supposedly "expendable" rocket returned from an orbital space mission.
The primary purpose of Sunday's launch was to send the Jason-3 ocean science satellite into orbit.