For the second time in a year (356 days to be exact), SpaceX has published a photo of a Falcon 9 booster recovery aboard one of its autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS), in this case showing the first reused Block 5 rocket just prior to landing on the Florida-based drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY).
SpaceX published the last routine drone ship rocket recovery photos all the way back in August 2017, following the successful West Coast launch of the Formosat-5 imaging satellite. Prior to Formosat-5, SpaceX regularly routinely posted photos from their West and East Coast drone ships alongside the launch photos they have shared after every launch the company has ever conducted, only once skipping landing photos for the slightly off-nominal drone ship recovery after Falcon 9’s launch of BulgariaSat-1.
Adding additional intrigue to the abrupt year-long drought of drone ship landing photos, SpaceX continued to publish official launch photos for all missions and posted at least one or two images of booster recovery whenever the mission allowed for a return to launch site (RTLS) landing at the company’s Cape Canaveral Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1). More recently, SpaceX did publish a similar snippet from B1046’s first drone ship landing back in May 2018.
Given the experimental nature of most drone ship booster recoveries in 2016, 2017, and even 2018, there is little doubt that SpaceX has continued to capture extensive video and photos of drone ship landings, just as the company does during launch with arrays of dozens of cameras inside the rocket and throughout their launch facilities. Why official drone ship photos stopped will likely remain a mystery, but there are several obvious possibilities ranging from an internal undercurrent of concern that the camera views might give away too much proprietary detail to potential competitors to a much more mundane conclusion that the company’s energy would be best directed elsewhere.
Falcon 9 lands on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship and returns to port after delivering the Merah Putih satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit. This mission marked the first re-flight of a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket booster. https://t.co/dkeXxPZmlq pic.twitter.com/4l3vmIBLyM
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 15, 2018
None of the obvious explanations are very convincing or satisfying. However, the most important thing here is to remember that SpaceX is by no means required to make anything public, including the company’s live launch coverage, official photos, factory and facility information, activity updates, and even providing press access to launches to set up their own remote cameras. Although many of those dramatically improve the company’s public perception and bolster its standing among typically tight-lipped competitors, none of it is guaranteed to last forever.
Regardless, I and (presumably) the entire spaceflight fan community will be crossing our fingers and hoping that the year-long drought of Falcon 9 drone ship landing photos has at long last come to an end.
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