Elon Musk's SpaceX made history in space technology and advancement by pulling off a controlled ground-based landing of an orbital rocket, and that too a reusable one. The feat achieved for the first time is set to revolutionise the rocket industry, which currently loses millions of dollars in discarded machinery and sophisticated rocket components after each launch.
The Falcon 9 rocket that took off vertically from its launchpad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, penetrated the boundary of space, deposited its second stage into orbit, and returned intact to Earth, landing upright not far from where its journey began. The journey also established its primary mission, which was to place 11 small satellites into low orbit for Orbcomm's new satellite network.
A SpaceX spokesperson describing the mammoth task to CNN said: "It is like launching a pencil over the Empire State building and having it land on a shoebox on the other side during a wind storm." The launch, which was originally planned for 20 December, had to be rescheduled as the Falcon 9 engine's static test fire was delayed.
The company had also attempted two previous vertical landings, one in January and the other in April, during both of which the Falcon 9 failed to touch down on the custom-built robotic barge waiting for it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Then in June, while taking supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), the Falcon 9 exploded just two minutes and 19 seconds into its mission. The Falcon 9 was remodelled and this time a ground-based landing was attempted successfully.
Revolutionising rocket industry
Rockets are regarded essentially as trash after take-off, if they have not been totally destroyed on missions. By landing its first phase of the Falcon 9, SpaceX has preserved at least part of the main engines that can be put to use another day.
This indicates that in future the cost of placing satellites, supplying astronauts at space stations and even spaceflights could dramatically come down, a move beneficial for everyone including the military. SpaceX already has a $1.6bn contract with Nasa to supply the astronauts living at the ISS over numerous back-and-forth trips with its Dragon cargo ship.
SpaceX is not the only one venturing into this territory. Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, launched a rocket into space and also successfully achieved a vertical landing in November.
However, it travelled vertically to a "sub-orbital" 62 miles above Earth compared to the Falcon 9 that had to reach low orbit, which begins only at 100 miles above Earth. The Falcon rockets also have huge energy requirements to get into orbit.
SpaceX has over 50 launches worth billions waiting in line. It is also competing with Boeing to build crew spaceships to take astronauts to low-Earth orbit as early as 2017.
Other than SpaceX and Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance — the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin — is poised to enter the reusability domain with a new rocket called Vulcan. The Vulcan is designed so that the most expensive part of the first stage, the main engines, can be captured mid-air by helicopters. Blue Origin is making the engines.
Watch the entire launch webcast in the video below: