It's a mostly-good day for SpaceX. They succeeded in their primary mission, delivering the Jason-3 oceanographic satellite into orbit. Their secondary objective was less successful: the Falcon 9 first stage rocket reached the bard, but crashed on landing.
This article was updated as we acquired more information.
The company had been streaming the launch and experienced loss of signal from the first stage, leaving everyone with a bit of a cliffhanger as to the stage's fate. Worse yet, our on-the-scene reporter was out of service area, and surrounded by white fog with extremely limited visibility.
Even SpaceX officials were uncertain about the stage of their rocket:
Standing by for status of stage one. Second stage and Jason-3 now in nominal coast phase.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 17, 2016
When the live stream returned, a SpaceX official noted that the first stage came in "on target", but that it came in harder than expected. It was immediately obvious something had gone wrong: instead of standing upright, the rocket was on its side. Initial suspicions are that the rocket broke a leg.
First stage on target at droneship but looks like hard landing; broke landing leg. Primary mission remains nominal → https://t.co/tdni53IviI
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 17, 2016
That was quickly confirmed by Elon Musk on Twitter:
However, that was not what prevented it being good. Touchdown speed was ok, but a leg lockout didn't latch, so it tipped over after landing.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016
This is different from the two prior landings on barges: the first landing in January 2015 came in too fast, while the second in April 2015 came in with a softer landing, but carried too much lateral motion.
As our very own Maddie Stone noted on twitter, an ocean landing is incredibly hard to accomplish. It's even harder in rough seas. The ocean swells off the coast of California today are much more suitable for surfing than rocket landings with waves 10-13 feet (3-4 meters) high. This was anticipated in the weather forecast, but with conditions good for Jason-3 to launch the company went ahead anyway.
Last month, SpaceX successfully landed a rocket, but it was on solid ground. They're continuing to work at barge landings partly because they're not yet cleared for ground landings at their Vandenberg location, and partly because it gives them greater flexibility in recovering rockets with higher launch velocities.
This was the final launch (and landing attempt) for the older-model Falcon 9 rockets. All future rockets are using the newer, upgraded Falcon 9. The new rocket not only has more thrust, but also has stronger legs which may help with this reoccurring broken-leg-and-topple problem.
Although disappointing, SpaceX is still doing an incredible job with reliably reaching the barge. Even Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos, primary competition for SpaceX in developing rockets that can successfully land after launching, offered his congratulations and optimism going forward:
Impressive launch and @SpaceX will soon make Falcon 9 landings routine – so good for space! Kudos SpaceX!
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) January 17, 2016
Meanwhile, the primary mission was looking great. The second stage engine cut off on schedule, leaving the rocket and satellite coasting in an intermediate orbit.
— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) January 17, 2016
Nearly an hour later, the second stage restarted successfully for a quick burn before deploying the Jason-3 satellite. The satellite lost signal with the ground before confirming that solar arrays successfully deployed, but JPL heard the good news when they reacquired signal as the satellite passed over Alaska.
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) January 17, 2016
Jason-3 will begin powering up instruments in the next few days. Instrument check out will be rapid, followed by a months-long period of data verification and cross-calibration before the mission enters science operations. It will be providing global ocean topography data every ten days, data essential both for the long-term monitoring record and for day-to-day ocean operations. Learn more about the satellite and how its data will be used here.
Jason-3 has an expected five year lifespan, with optimism it will still be running in five years. It will be joined by Jason-CS in 2018.
This post is being updated. Additional reporting by Maddie Stone.