SpaceX just hit two significant milestones, as it completed two successful launches from two separate launch facilities this weekend. The two launches brings the company’s year-to-date total up to nine successful launches, surpassing the milestone it set in 2016. The company has another 54 launches in queue, but it is highly unlikely it will be able to pull all of those off during 2017. They are forecast to launch over 22 missions this year, however.
The first launch on Friday was a Falcon 9 rocket that lifted BlugariaSat-1, a communications satellite, into geostationary orbit. The current Falcon 9 Full Thrust model has a reusable first stage which allows it to be reused in other launches. That reusable first stage marked the second milestone for SpaceX, making it the second time that a first stage booster was reused to launch a new payload into space. The booster had previously been used and was recovered on an unmanned drone ship in the Atlantic. The first time that a booster was reused was in March.
The reusable first stage of the Falcon 9 was first successfully tested in December of 2015. There were originally plans to reuse the second stage as well, but logistics made the process infeasible. Since then, the process of reusing rockets has become easier and more streamlined for SpaceX, with the founder, Elon Musk, commenting that it was starting to feel normal to reuse rockets.
Musk was worried that the booster wouldn’t be recoverable a second time. He sent out a tweet on Friday just an hour before the launch saying that there was a good chance that the booster wouldn’t make it back.
Falcon 9 will experience its highest ever reentry force and heat in today's launch. Good chance rocket booster doesn't make it back.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 23, 2017
He needn’t have worried, however. The booster recovered and made its landing, hitting the deck a little hard.
The second launch of the weekend was part of the Iridium Next system, which aims to install a global network of satellites. These satellites will provide voice and data coverage to transceivers over Earth’s entire surface, eliminating blind spots. With the elimination of these blind spots, losing aircraft such as the Malaysia Flight MH370 will become next to impossible. The second launch sent up a group of satellites to join the 10 satellites that were positioned in January of 2017. Over the course of the next year, SpaceX hopes to launch another six Iridium Next missions to complete the satellite constellation.
The launch of the Falcon 9 on Sunday did not use a previously used booster, but the booster used was recovered on a drone ship. According to the footage, however, the drone missed its mark on the recovery ship by two feet. The NASA Watch Twitter account poked fun at Elon Musk for the error, telling him that he would need to relaunch and “try harder” next time.
— NASA Watch (@NASAWatch) June 25, 2017
SpaceX is rapidly becoming the go-to company for putting satellites and gear into orbit. SpaceX currently has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide resupply to the International Space Station, and will eventually be used to provide shuttle service for transporting crews to the orbiting space station. The first planned mission to ferry crew will take place in the second quarter of 2018.
Additionally, SpaceX is among the leaders of contracts for the United States Air Force, lofting satellites into orbit for the military. In late 2018, the first commercial flight is planned that will take tourists in a trip around the moon. Two unnamed private citizens have already paid significant deposits for the trip, which will use the as-yet-untested Falcon Heavy. The Falcon Heavy is expected to take its maiden flight later this year.
The third milestone that SpaceX hit was the use of a sportsfin upgrade on the Falcon 9. The redesigned titanium steering fins make it easier to recover the booster. As soon as the first stage separates, the hydraulically-actuated fins deploy and help guide the booster down. The fins are custom cut from one piece of titanium and are designed to withstand the heat of reentry. Previously, aluminum fins were used that needed replaced after every flight. Some on-board cameras even showed the fins burn and light on fire during reentry. Because the fins are able to be reused without any touchup, this helps make the cost of reusing the boosters even lower. Elon Musk shared a sped up video of Sunday’s booster recovery on Instagram.
[Featured Image by John Raoux/AP Images]