SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket returns to service

SpaceX nails first landing after blast

Image credit: Reuters

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has nailed its first landing after the explosion that destroyed the rocket and a satellite last September during a pre-launch test.

Falcon 9 shot off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on Saturday evening with ten satellites for the communications constellation Iridium aboard.

The rocket’s first stage safely descended onto an ocean platform about ten minutes later, marking the fifth consecutive successful Falcon 9 landing on a sea barge.

The mission tested changes implemented by SpaceX, following the explosion which took place on 1 September 2016 during fuelling. An investigation found that a canister of helium inside the rocket’s second stage’s oxygen tank burst, triggering the explosion, which destroyed not only the rocket and an Israeli communications satellite, but also seriously damaged SpaceX’s launch pad at Cape Caneveral.

SpaceX hasn’t yet redesigned the canister and is so far mitigating the risks by changing its fuelling procedures.

The second Falcon 9 explosion in a little more than a year led to a suspension in operations, which caused a delay to SpaceX’s schedule. The firm now has a queue of 70 satellites worth some $10bn waiting to be launched.

It is not known how much the accident and the subsequent grounding cost SpaceX. However, a recent report by the Wall Street Journal stated that the previous explosion and grounding, which took place shortly after lift-off of a mission delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015, resulted in a loss of more than a quarter of billion dollars.

SpaceX, one of the two private companies delivering cargo to the ISS for Nasa, has ambitious plans for 2017. It aims to launch 27 rockets. In 2016, it only launched eight. The firm is also preparing for an ambitious test flight of its new heavy lift booster Falcon Heavy and aims to launch a satellite using a previously flown rocket.

In 2018, SpaceX is expected to perform the first flight with a human crew, allowing the US to transport astronauts to the ISS for the first time since the final flight of the space shuttle in 2011.

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