Today, January 14, 2017, SpaceX achieved another commercial launch success with the delivery of ten Iridium satellites to orbit—the first of 70 that will comprise the next generation IridiumNext constellation—as well as a new milestone in its ongoing trek toward reusable launch capability: the first successful landing of a Falcon 9 first-stage booster on its Pacific-based autonomous drone ship, Just Read the Instructions.
Just eight minutes and 13 seconds after the Falcon 9 lifted off from the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, located on the coast of California just north of Santa Barbara, the depleted first stage touched down on the deck of the drone ship stationed out in the Pacific. It was the first west coast success for SpaceX and the fourth sea landing overall, with the previous three having occurred on its Atlantic ship, Of Course I Still Love You. (The ship names are from a series of science fiction books by Iain M. Banks, who passed away in June 2013.) One other successful booster landing also took place on land after a higher-altitude delivery, bringing the total to five returned intact Falcon 9 first stages.
The video above shows the view looking down the booster as it descends from space after separation. Small engine burns took place to adjust its course and slow its velocity; the grid-shaped fins help to steer it onto the deck of the ship. Keep in mind that this booster is 48 meters (157 feet) tall and the deck of the ship is 51 meters (170 feet) wide…not a very large target at all! (For an idea of the size, here are some photos from Port Canaveral.) NOTE: this footage is from the live web feed. If a better version becomes available I will share it here.
This was another experimental landing, but eventually these first stages can be refitted for flight and refueled as needed.
UPDATE JAN. 18: SpaceX has shared some photos of the 160-foot-high first stage’s landing on Just Read the Instructions, and they’re incredible. Click the picture below to see it and more on SpaceX’s Flickr album.
AND for a idea of the sheer size of that thing, check out this video of the first stage after arrival at port in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, shared on Twitter by Sandy Mazza:
— Sandy Mazza (@SandyMazza) January 19, 2017