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Elon Musk-owned SpaceX managed a flawless lift-off and launch at Cape Canaveral late in the evening on December 21st. The Falcon-9 rocket then deployed 11 small satellites into orbit for Orbcomm. The rocket’s upper stage was turned around in space and ten minutes after lifting off it successfully landed at a precisely designated spot some six miles to the south from where it had lifted off.
This triple success is a complete ‘first’ for the industry. The control team, perhaps in an echo of a phrase that resonates back to mankind’s first landing on the Moon, enthusiastically chanted “The Eagle has landed” once the dust and engine smoke had cleared the air.
But the rocket’s safe return represents an enormous shift in the overall cost equation of sending satellites – and even manned missions – into space. If rocket stages can be refurbished and re-used after launch then the total cost of missions will be significantly reduced.
Musk admits that his SpaceX team has a year or two of further work to do. It is also worth remembering that two previous attempts by SpaceX to return rockets to Earth have failed. But Musk’s team are fast learners, and are managing to implement improvements within weeks and seemingly to get those improvements from the drawing board to working success on the launch pad.
On this occasion, the Falcon-9 had reinforced internal struts, and the upgraded design worked flawlessly. The liquid oxygen was chilled to minus 340 degrees Fahrenheit, about 40 degrees colder than on earlier flights, and the kerosene fuel was cooled to 20 degrees instead of 70 degrees.
And it all worked. Musk says simply that if these experiments can now be commercialised and incorporated into future launches, then costs will tumble.