SpaceX lands rocket at sea, makes history
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SpaceX lands rocket at sea, makes history


SpaceX has finally done it! After launching
its Falcon 9 into space, the company successfully landed the majority of the rocket on a floating
drone ship at sea. It’s the second time SpaceX has landed its rocket post-launch,
and the first time the company has pulled off an ocean landing. This is another big milestone for SpaceX.
In December, the company made history when it successfully landed its Falcon 9 for the
first time at a ground-based landing site at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Sure Blue Origin
has also launched and landed its own rocket, but that vehicle can’t really be compared
to the Falcon 9. And now SpaceX has shown it is capable of landing its rockets both
on solid ground and at sea. But why land on a floating drone ship when
you can land on land? It’s definitely easier to touch down a rocket on a large, expanse
of ground, rather than a ship floating on moving water. Plus, all the previous times
SpaceX has tried to land the Falcon 9 at sea, the results have been… explosions. The reason has to do with fuel. When the Falcon
9 reaches a certain altitude in space and separates from the top of the vehicle, it
uses leftover fuel to reignite its engines and come back to Earth. The engines are lit
in a series of burns that get the vehicle in the right position for entering Earth’s
atmosphere and landing. Different landings require different amounts
of fuel to pull off. It’s because the Falcon 9 doesn’t launch straight upward, but follows
a curved path up and away from the launch pad. For a ground landing, the rocket needs
extra fuel to slow down on that arc, completely flip around, and then retread all the horizontal
and vertical distance it has covered to make it back to solid ground. But for ocean landings, the drone ship can
position itself down range of the rocket, or in the ideal place to “catch” the vehicle
on a more natural path back to Earth. That decreases the distance the rocket needs to
travel and the amount of fuel needed to maneuver the Falcon 9 for landing. Not all of SpaceX’s missions are even capable
of performing ground landings, since some use up way more fuel than others. Rockets
that launch heavy payloads or go to a high orbit need extra speed for the initial launch.
And extra speed requires extra fuel. So for Falcon 9 vehicles that accelerate much more
rapidly during ascent, there’s not as much fuel leftover for the landing. That’s when
the drone ship is the best — if not only — option for recovery. SpaceX expects to land about one-third of
its rockets on land, and the rest in the ocean. So it’s definitely going to need to perfect
those sea landings in order to recover and reuse more rockets in the future. The company’s
president Gwynne Shotwell, expects reusing the Falcon 9 will lead to a 30 percent reduction
in launch costs. Those savings will only start to benefit SpaceX with the more rockets they
land, and the faster they land them.

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