Space & Innovation

SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Flies on Fifth Launch Attempt

SpaceX waited out high winds and worked through a series of technical issues to send its 22nd Falcon 9 rocket soaring into space on Friday to deliver a communications satellites into orbit.

Elon Musk's rocket company SpaceX waited out high winds and worked through a series of technical issues to send its 22nd Falcon 9 rocket soaring into space on Friday to deliver a communications satellites into orbit.

After four delays, the Falcon 9, carrying the SES-9 communications satellite, blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 6:35 p.m. ET.

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Two and a half minutes later, the first-stage of the rocket separated, turned around and headed back toward a platform floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

Musk said that, as expected, the returning first-stage of the Falcon 9 rocket flying Friday made a hard landing on the ocean platform stationed off the coast of Florida. "Next flight has a good chance," Musk posted on Twitter.

Before launch, SpaceX downplayed the chance the first-stage would land intact, due to the higher speed and extra fuel required to boost the six-ton SES-9 satellite toward its intended orbit more than 24,000 miles above Earth.

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SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon rocket first-stage on a landing pad at Cape Canaveral in December. The rocket flying on Friday was going too fast to attempt a return to land, so SpaceX dispatched one of its sea platforms instead.

Three previous attempts to land in the ocean have failed. SpaceX came close to nailing the landing during its last try in January, but after touching down one of the rocket's stabilizing landing legs failed to latch and the rocket fell over and exploded.

SpaceX is looking to fly more than 12 Falcon rockets this year, including the first flight of its 27-engine Falcon Heavy booster.

This pre-launch photo shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as the sun sets over Cape Canaveral, Fla. | SpaceX (Live feed screenshot)

This on-board photograph shows the engine of the Falcon 9 second stage booster glowing shortly after launch. The rocket's smoke trail can be seen in the distance snaking through the atmosphere at the Earth's limb.

Like many rocket launch companies, SpaceX learned some its most valuable lessons from the school of hard knocks before nailing an impressive string of 18 successful Falcon 9 missions. An investigation into what went wrong during Flight 19 is underway, but SpaceX is telling its customers to prepare for potential delays on the order of a few months.

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"Once the root cause is identified, we will be able to better determine any changes to future launch dates," SpaceX wrote in an email to Discovery News. Here’s a look at some of the high and low points in the 13-year-old company.

Image: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at its Cape Canaveral launch pad before launch on Sunday morning.

SpaceX debuted a small, two-stage launch vehicle called Falcon 1 on March 24, 2006, that used a single Merlin engine in its first-stage. The flight lasted less than a minute due to a fuel line leak -- later traced to a busted aluminum nut -- which sparked a fire. SpaceX had two more failed launches before successfully flying Falcon 1 on Sept. 28, 2008. The rocket launched one more time, delivering Malaysia’s RazakSAT Earth-imaging satellite into orbit, on July 14, 2009. SpaceX flew Falcon 1 rockets from Omelek Island in the Marshall Islands.

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Incorporating what it learned from Falcon 1, SpaceX went on to cluster nine Merlin engines together into a beefier first-stage for a new rocket, the Falcon 9. With NASA development funds, SpaceX also worked on a cargo capsule called Dragon that could carry equipment and supplies to and from the International Space Station. Falcon 9 made a successful first flight on June 4, 2010, from a leased and refurbished launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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SpaceX used its second Falcon 9 launch to put a Dragon cargo ship into orbit, a test run before flying the spaceship near the International Space Station. The rocket blasted off on Dec. 8, 2010, and deposited Dragon in a 190-mile high orbit. After two swings around Earth, Dragon re-entered the atmosphere and made a parachute splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

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Encouraged by Falcon 9 and Dragon’s success, NASA agreed to let SpaceX combine two more test flights into one and attempt to berth Dragon at the station. On May 22, 2012, three days after launching into orbit, a Dragon spaceship before the first privately owned spacecraft to reach the station. It returned to Earth on May 31, restoring NASA’s ability to fly cargo home from the station following the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.

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Along with flying cargo to the station for NASA, SpaceX wooed commercial customers that wanted to put communications and other satellites into high orbits, a market that the United States had nearly completely lost to Europe’s Arianespace and companies selling rides on Russian launchers. With its cut-rate pricing and launch reliability, SpaceX soon had customers lining up for launches. Luxembourg-based SES was first, with a launch on Dec. 3, 2013. The company also has booked a ride for the first Falcon 9 flight that will amp up its engine power and has expressed interest in buying refurbished rockets, if and when SpaceX can perfect that technology.

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Undercutting competitors’ price for space launch services isn’t enough for SpaceX. The company has been working on an increasingly more sophisticated series of tests to land the discarded first-stages of the Falcon 9 booster. So far, two attempts to land on a platform floating in the ocean have come close. SpaceX was due to make a third try on Sunday before an accident claimed the rocket.

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After a flawless countdown and smooth liftoff, the company’s 19th Falcon 9 mission came to an abrupt end. About 139 seconds after launch and just before the first-stage was to separate for its landing test, the rocket broke apart. Preliminary analysis indicates a problem with the pressurization of the upper-stage’s liquid oxygen tank. SpaceX hopes to quickly find and fix the problem and resume flying within a few months. The company has more than 50 missions on its schedule, worth more than $7 billion.

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