Space & Innovation

SpaceX Falcon Rocket Soars, Then Returns to Land

The booster dispatched a cargo ship into orbit with a new docking system for the space station.

Image: A Falcon 9 rocket launch -- and landing -- in this long-exposure photograph taken on Monday. Credit: SpaceX Under the glow of a full moon, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soared through balmy Florida skies early Monday to deliver a cargo ship into orbit, then blazed back to its seaside launch site for a rare touchdown on the ground.

Sonic booms rang out across Central Florida shortly before 1 a.m. EDT as the booster dropped below the speed of sound and barreled toward a landing pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The 23-story tall rocket, carrying a Dragon cargo ship, had blasted off from a launch pad a few miles to the north at 12:45 a.m. EDT.

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It was only the second time that a returning SpaceX rocket landed on the ground, an option only when the rocket has enough fuel to spare after dispatching its payload into orbit. The fuel is needed for braking burns to trim the rocket's speed.

SpaceX, which is owned and run by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, uses a platform floating in the ocean as a landing pad for rockets on more challenging missions. So far, three of the last four ocean landings have been successful.

SpaceX wants to recover as many of its rockets as possible so they can be refurbished and reflow, drastically cutting launch costs. The company is working toward flying its first reused booster later this year, said Hans Koenigsmann, a SpaceX vice president in charge of flight reliability.

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The primary goal of Monday's launch was to put a Dragon cargo ship into orbit for a two-day trip to the International Space Station. The capsule is loaded with nearly 5,000 pounds of supplies and science equipment for the station, a permanently staffed research laboratory that flies about 250 miles above Earth.

The new gear includes a miniature DNA sequencer, which will be tested in space for the first time. The most critical piece of hardware is a docking ring that will enable crewed spaceships under development by SpaceX and Boeing to park at the station.

The first docking ring was destroyed in a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch accident in June 2015.

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