SpaceX’s Falcon 9 faced its most challenging reentry and landing yet

Falcon 9 B1048 completed its third successful launch and landing in seven months, sending Beresheet on its way to the Moon and PSN-6 to a high Earth orbit. (SpaceX)

SpaceX has completed its second successful launch of 2019, sending the first commercial Moon lander on the first leg of its journey to the lunar surface with a sooty Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket.

Built by Israeli aerospace company IAI for customer SpaceIL, the Moon lander – named Beresheet, Hebrew for “in the beginning” – is just one of three payloads present on this launch, gently perched with Air Force satellite S5 atop Indonesian communications satellite PSN-6. According to SpaceX, Falcon 9 B1048’s third successful launch and landing faced the Block 5 booster with “some of the most challenging reentry conditions to date”.

After separating from Falcon 9’s upper stage and payload at an altitude of 68 km (43 mi) and a velocity of nearly 2.4 km/s (1.5 mi/s, Mach 7+), B1048 continued on in the near-vacuum of suborbital space, likely peaking at 80-100 km before heading back down into the thicker parts of Earth’s atmosphere. Despite what one SpaceX engineer described as “the most challenging reentry conditions to date”, B1048 appeared to perform perfectly over the course of its third launch and landing.

According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the booster could fly again as early as April in support of Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort mission, although his implication that that test will occur in April directly contradicts a recent NASA schedule update that pegged the test no earlier than (NET) June 2019.

Shortly before the main PSN-6 satellite was deployed from Falcon 9’s upper stage, one of SpaceX’s launch network operators verbally confirmed that SpaceIL’s Beresheet lander had established communications with the ground and successfully deployed its landing legs in orbit, one tangible step closer to the first attempted commercial Moon landing. Beresheet and PSN-6 will now take opposite paths forward, with the lunar lander raising its orbit quite literally to the Moon while PSN-6 drops its high end down and circularizes at approximately 35,800 km (22,250 mi) above Earth.

Combined with Musk’s apparent belief that B1048 – having just experienced what he described as the “highest reentry heating to date” – could be ready to launch again as few as 40-70 days from now, this successful launch and landing of a flight-proven Falcon 9 booster (the second time a SpaceX rocket as flown for the third time) suggests that the Block 5 upgrade continues to operate nominally. Designed to radically improve the ease and speed of Falcon 9 booster reuse, Block 5 debuted in May 2018 and has now launched 12 times, with half of those missions flying on flight-proven boosters. The proportion of flight-proven to new booster launches is likely to continue to grow in 2019, ultimately reaching a point where new boosters are limited to inaugural hardware debuts or specific contractual requests from conservative US government customers.

Up next for SpaceX is the imminent orbital launch debut of Crew Dragon, set to occur no earlier than March 2nd. While a slip of several days or more is not out of the question, the lack of date movement less than ten days out from the target launch date suggests that this particular date is far more confident than the several that preceded it. Regardless, we’ll find out tomorrow just how confident NASA and SpaceX are in DM-1’s March 2nd launch plan.

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 faced its most challenging reentry and landing yet
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