Space & Innovation

SpaceX Launches Satellite, Rocket Topples on Landing Attempt

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off through thick fog in California to send an ocean science satellite on its way to orbit, then flipped around and tried to land itself on a platform floating in the Pacific Ocean.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off through thick fog in California to send an ocean science satellite on its way to orbit, then flipped around and tried to land itself on a platform floating in the Pacific Ocean.

PHOTOS: Lesson of SpaceX Rocket Landing: Try, Try, Try Again

It found the target, but one of the rocket's landing legs didn't latch into place and the rocket tipped over, SpaceX founder Elon Musk wrote on Twitter. "At least the pieces were bigger this time," he said, with a photo of the landing aftermath. "Am optimistic about upcoming ship landing."

SpaceX had hoped to build on last month's stunningly successful rocket return to a landing pad in Florida with an ocean platform touchdown, part of Musk's ongoing quest to develop cheap, reusable rockets.

Landing on the ground saves the time, trouble and expense of dispatching a floating landing platform and support ships, but not all of SpaceX's rockets will have the spare fuel to make it back to the launch site.

NEWS: SpaceX to Make Next Rocket Landing Attempt Sunday

The company also is still waiting for environmental approval to bring its rockets back to its west coast launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is why SpaceX opted for an ocean landing attempt on Sunday.

The primary goal of the mission was to put the Jason-3 satellite into an 830-mile high orbit inclined 66 degrees relative to the equator. From that vantage point, the spacecraft, a joint venture of several U.S. and European agencies, will use its instruments to measure the height of the oceans to an accuracy of one inch.

The oceans are becoming ground zero in efforts to track and predict Earth's changing climate.

"With all the extra heat that's being absorbed by the ocean, the waters are expanding," said oceanographer Josh Willis, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Falcon Returns: SpaceX Makes Historic Rocket Landing

Oceans also collect runoff water from melting glaciers and ice sheets, which also are reacting to warming temperatures, he added.

"These two things together cause global sea levels to rise ... That rise is really our most powerful tool for measuring human-caused climate change," Willis said.

Jason-3 is the fourth in s series of ocean science satellites, which also are used to predict severe weather events, such as this year's El Nino system, monitor tsunamis and track oil spills.

This photo from the droneship in the Pacific Ocean shows the Falcon 9 first stage rocket moments before landing. Unfortunately the rocket tipped over shortly after when a landing strut failed.

A repaired and upgraded Falcon 9 rocket not only put SpaceX back in the launch business on Monday, it stunningly demonstrated that with enough time, technical expertise and maybe a little luck, it’s possible to return a rocket booster to the launch site. Here’s a look back at the highs and lows along the way to this historic moment.

MORE: Falcon Returns: SpaceX Makes Historic Rocket Landing

SpaceX pulled off an historic first Monday night, launching a network of communications satellites into orbit, and then landing the rocket’s jettisoned main stage back near the launch site. SpaceX gave its customer, Orbcomm, a cut-rate $47 million, two-flight deal, a savings for more than $70 million. Orbcomm, which operates machine-to-machine communications systems, such as between shipping containers and retailers, was an early SpaceX adopter, booking rides on the company’s now-decommissioned Falcon 1 launcher. SpaceX moved Orbcomm to its bigger Falcon 9 rockets for the same price. Landing the booster was the icing on the cake, an experiment conducted at SpaceX’s expense. The touchdown, however, may lead to even better prices for Orbcomm and SpaceX’s other customers in the future, with a new category of launch vehicle in the offing slightly used.

PHOTOS: Before Falcon 9, SpaceX Learned From Falcon 1 Flops

Photo: This is a striking timelapse image shows the bright streaks caused by the Falcon 9 launch and its returning first stage booster.

SpaceX founder and chief executive had a nasty surprise on his 44th birthday: a Falcon 9 rocket blasting off to deliver a load of cargo to the International Space Station broke apart about two minutes after liftoff from Florida on June 28. It was the first failure of the Falcon 9, which had flown 18 times previously. The accident, which was caused by a faulty strut in the rocket’s upper-stage liquid oxygen tank, kept the Falcon 9 fleet grounded for six months.

MORE: Faulty Strut Likely Caused SpaceX Rocket Explosion

Photo: This image is a snapshot of the dramatic NASA TV footage of the moment when the Falcon 9 rocket exploded moments after lift off on June 28.

Following a series of tests to control booster descent, SpaceX customized a pair of ocean platforms in hopes of bringing a Falcon 9 first-stage back intact, a key step in the company’s quest to develop a reusable launcher, one that could fly for a fraction of today’s going rate. Nailing the landing was “like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm,” SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said at the time. During the first attempt to land at sea, in January 2015, the booster hit the target, but landed too hard, primarily because the hydraulic system needed to operate stabilizing grid fins, ran out of fluid. The next attempt, in April, a stuck valve prevented the booster from reacting fast enough to maintain position after a successful touchdown. It toppled over and exploded.

VIDEO: SpaceX Releases Amazing (and Explosive) Video of Rocket Landing

Photo: During ocean landing tests, SpaceX proved they could return their Falcon 9 boosters to a precise target, but maintaining stability on touchdown has been a problem.

SpaceX’s early attempts to develop rocket landing technologies included a suborbital testbed called Grasshopper, which was used for low-altitude, low-speed hover and landing tests beginning in September 2012. On its eighth and final flight in October 2013, Grasshopper flew to an altitude of 2,441 feet and landed. A follow-on program, the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle, or F9R, had a successful debut in April 2014, but crashed due to a faulty sensor four months later.

PHOTOS: SpaceX Grasshopper Rocket Takes Giant Leap

Photo: The experimental Grasshopper rocket hovers over its launch site during early tests.

One of the first to offer congratulations to Elon Musk and SpaceX for nailing a rocket landing was Jeff Bezos, fellow billionaire rocketeer who founded his own space company, Blue Origin, in 2000, a couple of years before Musk started SpaceX. “Welcome to the club!” Bezos posted on Twitter, a not-so-oblique reference to his company nailing a landing of its suborbital New Shepard rocket a month ago. After that feat, Musk took to Twitter to offer his own congratulations, also couched with comments about the relative difficulty of landing from orbital versus suborbital velocities. Rocket races, anyone?

MORE: Blue Origin Nails Rocket Landing

Photo: Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket achieves touchdown after a successful suborbital launch test.

Cheap, reusable rockets aren’t just good for business. SpaceX founder Elon Musk sees them as an essential part of the technology needed to get to Mars. “Now is the first time in the history of Earth ... where it's possible for us to extend life to other planets," Musk said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this month. "That window may be open for a long time -- and hopefully it is -- but it also may be open for a short time," he said. “The wise move is to make life multi-planetary while we can.” A large part of making space travel affordable is reducing launch costs, hence SpaceX’s steadfast efforts to develop reusable rockets. Musk said each Falcon 9 costs about $16 million to build, but fuel for the flight is a relatively cheap $200,000. Slashing costs by that much is a game-changer. SpaceX’s next job will be to assess the condition of the recovered Falcon and then possibly fly it again.

MORE: Musk: SpaceX Making 'Progress' Toward Mars Colony