WASHINGTON – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched an ocean-observing satellite into orbit Sunday, but the rocket’s first stage exploded after a failed landing.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX, coming off a historic landing of a first-stage rocket booster in December, attempted to repeat the feat on a drone ship Sunday in the Pacific Ocean. The Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and successfully launched the Jason-3 satellite into low-earth orbit, before the first-stage rocket began falling back to Earth.
At first, it looked like SpaceX had achieved its goal, with the rocket successfully making a soft landing on the ship. However, one of the four landing legs failed, causing the rocket to tip over and explode.
“Falcon lands on droneship, but the lockout collet doesn’t latch on one [of] the four legs, causing it to tip over post landing,” Musk wrote on Instagram after the explosion.
The root cause of the incident could be ice buildup in the rocket due to condensation from heavy fog during liftoff, Musk wrote.
But Musk saw a silver lining, expressing confidence that the next attempt at a ship landing would be successful. “Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time! Won’t be last [Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly], but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing," he tweeted.
This is not the first time SpaceX has failed to stick a landing on a seagoing barge. SpaceX attempted the feat twice last year, but both times the rocket missed its mark.
Musk pointed out the challenges of trying to land a reusable rocket at sea on Twitter Sunday night, comparing it to landing a plane on an aircraft carrier. “Definitely harder to land on a ship,” he wrote. “Similar to an aircraft carrier vs land: much smaller target area, that’s also translating & rotating.”
In a post on SpaceX’s website from December 2014, the company put the odds of success at 50 percent at best. At 14 stories tall and traveling at an incredible speed of almost one mile per second, successfully landing the first-stage rocket “is like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm.”
The Jason-3 is the newest satellite in a series of ocean-monitoring satellites, designed to provide critical information to forecasters to predict severe weather. Jason-3 is a joint venture between the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites.