SpaceX recovered the Falcon 9 First stage rocket after using it to launch the classified National Reconnaissance Organization or NRO satellite, dubbed NROL-76, into the Earth's orbit on Monday, May 1.
This is the first time that SpaceX has launched a highly classified intelligence satellite. The successful operation may lead to more such launches in the future.
How The Launch Took Place
The rocket lifted off at 7.15 a.m. EDT from the historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch was supposed to take place on Sunday, April 30, initially but was held back because of some sensor issues.
About 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the rocket's flight, the first stage engines shut down and separated from the rest of the body. The engines housed in the second stage of the rocket started up and continued the rockets journey while the first stage fell off.
Due to the secretive nature of the payload, SpaceX did not elaborate on the final trajectory of the second stage rocket and where the satellite was headed. However, the agency revealed how the disengaged first stage rocket returned to Earth.
First Stage Landing
Following the separation from the main rocket body, the first stage flipped over mid-air and restarted three of its nine engines for a short burst to counter its forward velocity. After it came back to the discernible atmosphere, the engines fired up again.
Just before landing, one engine fired up so that it could make a soft landing. This ensured the proper touchdown of the first stage rocket at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
A live video from the landing pad informed SpaceX technicians about the successful landing. They were ecstatic and reported that the first stage rocket had made it back to Earth in relatively good shape.
SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, also tweeted his delight at the successful launch and landing.
Launch and landing of the NRO spy satellite was good. Tough call, as high altitude wind shear was at 98.6% of the theoretical load limit. pic.twitter.com/nBzBMNdjBp
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 1 May 2017
This marks the 10th successful first stage landing for SpaceX (out of 15 launches) and the 4th landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The other landings took place on specially-built drone ships at sea.
Why Is The First Stage Landing Crucial?
Previously, agencies did not implement any method of recovery for the different stages of a rocket. This would make each mission costlier to undertake. Musk's idea of recovering the first stage and then reusing it for a different mission is a way of cutting costs effectively and also speeding up the launch process, as a new first stage rocket does not have to be engineered for the next mission. After Monday's success, Musk posted a video of the landing on his Instagram account. Check it out below.
Landing A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on May 1, 2017 at 6:44am PDT