SpaceX nails first rocket landing by sea in half a year, sends exoplanet probe beyond the Moon

SpaceX has successfully completed the first drone ship recovery of a Falcon 9 booster in nearly six months, bringing to an end a what will likely be the final drought of by-sea rocket landings in the company’s history.

B1045’s landing was a particularly stunning example of just how far SpaceX has come. By all appearances, the recovery was easily the smoothest yet achieved by the company, with nary a hint of reentry heating visible in the near-flawless live coverage from a camera aboard the booster. Perhaps of even more interest, the landing itself appeared to be exceptionally luxurious, with the booster gently floating down to its final resting perch aboard the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.

Falcon 9 1045 soars to the sky, the final new Block 4 flight ever. (Tom Cross)

This return-to-landing, so to speak, is SpaceX’s 24th successful Falcon booster recovery in just over three years of true recovery efforts. The last several months have featured an unfamiliar number of intentionally expendable launches, in which SpaceX chose to preclude any attempt at recovery, instead typically gently landing the boosters in the ocean to gather additional flight-test data and to explore the envelope of Falcon 9’s recovery capabilities. In all cases but one (Hispasat 30W-6), these intentionally expended boosters were older, flight-proven versions of the rocket, versions that hadn’t been designed to economically fly more than once or twice.

B1045, however, has just one flight under its belt, and is already pegged for a second launch with CRS-15, giving the booster as few as 50 days to be refurbished and prepped for its second pre-launch static fire (likely the first week of June). This would be an exceptionally fitting case of foreshadowing for SpaceX’s upcoming Block 5 iteration of Falcon 9. If a Block 4 booster can be launched, landed, and refurbished in well under two months, one can only imagine what a Falcon 9 explicitly upgraded for ease of reuse will be capable of.

Over the past six months, SpaceX has aggressively expanded their program of orbital rocket reuse, leaping from just three operational reflights of Falcon 9 boosters in the process’ first half-year (Mar-Oct ’17) to seven operational reflights between the following months of December and April. Today, April 18, the successful launch of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) marks the final launch of a new Block 4 Falcon 9 booster (B1045) – although we can expect as many as three additional reflights of recovery Block 4 boosters in 2018, all new Falcon 9 boosters from here on out will be Block 5s, a final upgrade to the rocket designed to significantly optimize reliability and reusability. The first Falcon 9 Block 5 is expected to debut sometime in May, currently No Earlier Than (NET) May 4.

Impressively, despite the fairly extensive modifications and upgrades – both for reliability and reusability – included in Falcon 9 Block 5, SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann stated that the lengthy test campaign in Texas went well and was in fact “faster than we’ve ever had on new Block upgrades [of Falcon 9].” SpaceX themselves have not yet given a specific date for the debut of Block 5, but Hans did partially confirm recent reports that it is now targeting a debut in “early May” with the launch of Bangabandhu-1. Put simply, so long as things go more or less according to plan, 2018 will in every conceivable way usher in the real future of orbital-class reusable rockets – perhaps enabling the sort of responsive, cheap, and reliable access to space long ago promised by CEO Elon Musk.

Science galore

Despite its diminutive size and 350 kg mass, TESS is expected to dramatically expand the number of detected exoplanets in the universe, and is tasked with surveying the remaining 95% of the sky left unscanned after Kepler’s famous mission. Ultimately, conservative estimates from astronomers expect TESS to add thousands of new exoplanets to humanity’s current catalog, with perhaps as many as 10% of those discovered likely to be Earth-sized, and thus potential candidates for the first habitable planets to be observed beyond the cozy bounds of our own Solar System.

To give a sense of just how far electronics and satellite technology have improved in the decade since the Kepler observatory was launched (2009), that 1050kg spacecraft was designed to stare specifically at one small segment of the sky (0.25%), scanning it ceaselessly for exoplanets. Despite complex technical difficulties, Kepler managed to discover nearly 1100 confirmed exoplanets, with more than 3000 additional candidates waiting to be confirmed by other spacecraft or telescopes.

On the other hand, the 350kg TESS, has been designed to sca the entire sky and may well double, triple, or quadruple the number of known exoplanets in the universe. Falcon 9 may undoubtedly be a bit like using a dump truck when a shovel would do, but the tiny size of the payload can be thanked for the exceptionally gentle booster recovery and the equally (relatively) easy refurbishment soon to follow.

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SpaceX nails first rocket landing by sea in half a year, sends exoplanet probe beyond the Moon
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