SpaceX has completed the 50th launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, with the successful insertion of the Hispasat 30W-6 communications satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit. Sadly, unfavorable weather conditions prevented the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You from heading down range to rendezvous with the returning first stage of the launch vehicle, leaving it no option but to crash into the sea.
Human history has been punctuated by technological advancements that have granted us greater freedom of exploration, allowing us to soar through Earth's atmosphere, and forge a path beyond. In 1903 the Wright brothers gave us the world's first powered flight. During the second World War, Wernher von Braun developed the V-2 rocket – a weapon of death that acted as the precursor to the first American rockets, and subsequently the space launch vehicles that allowed the nation to make its first bold strides into low-Earth orbit.
1961 saw Yuri Gagarin become the first human to orbit our blue marble, and within a decade, we had struck out even farther, as the Apollo program historically left an indelible footprint on Earth's Moon. Sadly, the Moon has been left abandoned since NASA's last mission in December 1972, and, as a race, we took a step backwards, leaving the exploration of Earth's satellite and the bodies beyond to autonomous hands.
In the wake of the Apollo era dawned the age of the Space Shuttle, another awe-inspiring technological achievement that proved pivotal to the construction of the International Space Station. Sadly, these magnificent machines were eventually retired, due in part to the prohibitive cost of maintaining the program.
Since then, space agencies and commercial entities have relied on liquid fuel rockets aided by solid fuel boosters to transport payloads into orbit. These launch vehicles, while impressive, are expensive, and can only be used once.
SpaceX's reusable approach to rocketry, realized in the Falcon 9, and impressively in the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy, is arguably the latest great advancement in humankind's ongoing effort to expand its sphere of influence. The company's rockets are designed around the premise that reusability is the silver bullet in creating a sustainable, and (relatively) affordable launch vehicle.
The nine Merlin engines that power the first stage of the Falcon 9 are capable of generating over 1.7 million pounds of thrust at sea level, the equivalent of more than five 747 jet aircraft. Its upper stage is powered by a single Merlin, which is optimized for performance in the hostile environment of low-Earth orbit.
Following its separation from the upper section of the rocket carrying the mission payload, the larger first stage is capable of performing a burn to set it on a rendezvous trajectory with a landing pad, either on solid ground, or in the form of a quirkily-named drone ship. The first stage can then perform a precision powered landing, after which the rocket can be collected for refurbishment and reuse.
SpaceX's 50th Falcon 9 was tasked with launching the Hispasat 30W-6 communications satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit. The bus-sized satellite is expected to have a lifespan of roughly 15 years, during which time it will provide high-quality telecommunication services to parts of Europe, the Americas, and Northwest Africa.
On March 6, SpaceX's milestone Falcon 9 roared into the night sky above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and just under 33 minutes later, completed its mission of delivering Hispasat 30W-6 to its desired transfer orbit.
The first stage then proceeded to complete its planned re-entry and landing burns. However, since inclement weather had prevented the drone barge Of Course I Still Love You from travelling downrange to act as a landing pad, the stage was abandoned to splash down into the ocean.
SpaceX founder, CEO, and lead designer Elon Musk fervently believes that his rockets will allow humanity not only to set foot on Mars, but to make the Red Planet a permanent colony. Those somewhat ambitious plans will take some time to come to fruition. In the mean time he'll have to be content with the impressive success of the Falcon 9, and, maybe, if he gets bored, blasting a couple more Tesla Roadsters into space..
Scroll down to watch a recorded livestream of the launch.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more