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SpaceX Falcon 9’s vertical landing: Here’s why it matters for science

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket entered into space, deployed satellites, and then landed back on Earth successfully which is an important milestone in space technology.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | Updated: December 25, 2015 12:28:23 pm
Falcon 9 landing video, Falcon 9 rocket, Falcon 9 rocket landing, SpaceX Tesla, Falcon 9 vertical landing, Falcon 9 VTVL, SpaceX, SpaceX Falcon 9, SpaceX Elon Musk, Elon Musk Falcon 9 landing SpaceX’s Falcon 9 landing successfully on its landing site. (Source: SpaceX Twitter feed)

SpaceX, the company run and founded by Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk, has successfully completed a vertical take-off and vertical landing (VTVL) with its Falcon 9 rocket after delivering a payload of commercial satellites, setting a new landmark in space travel technology.

The Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida with 11 communication satellites for customer OrbComm Inc and successfully deployed them in space. The reusable main-stage booster then turned around and landed safely near its launchpad at Cape Canaveral. With this, Falcon 9 becomes the first space rocket to land successfully on earth after launching a commercial payload in space.

Watch launch video

Why is the Falcon 9 landing so important for SpaceX?

The fact that Falcon 9 was able to go into space, launch its commercial payload and then return to Earth is great news for SpaceX as it will bring down operational costs for the company. Space X has proved that its rockets can be refurbished and re-flown for commercial purposes. However, SpaceX has not yet revealed how much of the rocket’s components can be reused.



The SpaceX feat is important, given that this is the first time that an orbital rocket has come back to Earth intact. The rocket reached a height of approximately 200 kms before it landed back on earth, and it is this high altitude which made the company’s mission so difficult.

Falcon 9 details

Falcon 9 is a 229.6 feet (70 metres) tall, two-stage rocket, built and designed by the company to deliver satellites and the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. It’s got a diametre of 12 feet and generates more than 1.5 million pounds of thrust at sea level, going up to nearly 1.7 million pounds of thrust in vacuum of space.

Elon Musk, also put out details about the Falcon 9 used in today’s mission and said the rocket has a higher performance than the prior version due to increased boost thrust, deep cryo-oxidizer and a much larger upper stage engine bell.

How is the Falcon 9 different from say rival Blue Origins’ New Shepard, which also landed back after take-off in November this year?

Falcon 9 is a bigger, more powerful rocket than Blue Origins’ New Shepard, which entered the earth’s orbit in November and successfully landed back. Blue Origins is funded by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

Video: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 lands successfully after launching into space

Falcon 9’s first stage is powered by nine Merlin engines, each one being much more powerful than the Blue Shepard which has one BE-3 engine. Each Merlin engine can emit 756 kilonewtons (170,000 pounds) of thrust at liftoff, while the BE-3 has a thrust of 110,000 pounds at liftoff. The total mass of the Falcon 9 is 541,300 kg or 1,194,000 pounds; the greater the mass of a rocket, the greater is the amount of thrust required to take-off into space.

Must see: SpaceX Falcon rocket explodes after Florida liftoff

Falcon 9 is primarily for delivering commercial space payload and therefore can carry a lot more weight, while New Shepard is really for taking space tourists to the edge of the earth and experience weightlessness.

Is Falcon 9 the first rocket to go into space and land safely back on earth?

The first sub-orbital reusable rocket was used in the X-15 planes tested by US Air Force and NASA in 1960s. These three rocket-powered planes reached the edge of outer space and the research data provided by them helped shape future space programs at NASA. In the private sector, SpaceShipOne, a rocket-powered aircraft, also completed the first spaceflight in 2004 and landed back successfully on Earth.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 had done a soft landing in the Atlantic Ocean in July 2014, proving that its engines are capable of successfully re-entering from space. In this case, the rocket had tipped sideways after landing.

So what next for Falcon 9?

Interestingly, after the successful landing Musk declared that the Falcon 9 will never fly again and that they’ll be keep this one back on earth. Even so, Musk’s company has proved that reusable rockets that go into space are very much a reality.

Watch video of Falcon 9 test flight from 2014

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