Updated: Right on schedule, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster made a beautiful soft landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station moments ago. It’s a huge moment in the history of spaceflight, marking the first time a rocket has ascended into orbit and landed back on Earth.
The prospects for the reusable rocket system SpaceX has been chasing for over a year are that much better.
At 8:29 pm ET, SpaceX launched its upgraded, Falcon 9 rocket carrying a payload of 11 Orbcomm communication satellites into low Earth orbit from Space Launch Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Minutes later, the second stage separated from the first and continued to propel its payload into higher orbit.
Ten minutes after launch, the rocket’s first stage landed smoothly back at SpaceX’s new Landing Zone 1 complex, located several miles away from Launch Pad 40.
A new deep cryo liquid oxygen fuel system featuring cooler, denser propellant, as well as several engine upgrades, translated into a 33% overall performance boost for the Falcon 9 that launched tonight. This was the also the very first SpaceX rocket that held enough fuel to attempt a controlled descent after a relatively high-altitude satellite launch mission.
First stage boosters are currently discarded, but by saving and reusing them, SpaceX hopes to dramatically reduce the cost of launching payloads into orbit. Indeed, SpaceX founder Elon Musk sees reusable rocket technology as a cornerstone of any attempt to colonize Mars.
But before we head to the Red Planet: tonight’s successful launch and landing positions SpaceX firmly back at the front of the commercial space race. The rocket company received its first commercial crew order from NASA earlier this fall, and there’s still one more order up for grabs between SpaceX and Boeing. Meanwhile, SpaceX has plenty of other customers in line who are waiting to send payloads up to orbit.
Check out the SpaceX livestream if you haven’t. People are freaking out!
Update: All 11 Orbcomm satellites have successfully deployed. The mission was a resounding success! Update: The livestream has ended. Let’s all go freak out some more on Twitter.
Update: And here’s the official long-exposure money shot of launch, re-entry, and landing. Glorious.