A SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket successfully delivered an ocean-monitoring satellite into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Sunday morning, but the secondary — and potentially historic — goal of the mission did not fare as well.
The rocket blasted off through heavy fog from VAFB’s Space Launch Complex-4 as scheduled at 10:43 a.m.
It carried with it the Jason-3 satellite that will be used by multiple agencies, including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to monitor the world’s oceans.
Beyond that mission, SpaceX also was attempting to make space launch history by landing the rocket’s first-stage booster on a drone barge in the Pacific Ocean.
That type of landing has never been successfully pulled off — SpaceX twice failed on attempts in 2015 — and Sunday provided another close, but ultimately failed, attempt.
The booster returned to the barge, which was about 200 miles off the coast, but one of its legs broke shortly after touching down, which caused the entire craft to fall over and explode.
"Definitely harder to land on a ship," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted afterward. "Similar to an aircraft carrier vs land: much smaller target area, that's also translating & rotating."
"However, that was not what prevented it being good," he followed up. "Touchdown speed was OK, but a leg lockout didn't latch, so it tipped over after landing."
The barge was reportedly experiencing waves as high as 15 feet at the time of liftoff, and the rough seas and/or cold and wet conditions may have played a part in the unsuccessful landing.
Despite that apparent setback, everything else with the launch of the Jason-3 mission went off without a hitch.
NASA confirmed about an hour after the launch that the satellite had separated and was in polar orbit.
"Confirmation has arrived via the Fairbanks, Alaska, tracking station that Jason-3’s solar arrays are, indeed, out," NASA posted on its blog about 90 minutes after launch.
"The twin Jason-3 solar arrays have been extended and the spacecraft is power positive, flying in its planned orbit of 66 degrees to the Earth’s equator."
The support team at VAFB also commented on the launch's success.
“The 30th Space Wing takes pride in supporting the successful launch of the new ocean-monitoring satellite with the NASA and SpaceX teams," said 30th Space Wing Vice Commander Col. Shane Clark, who was the launch decision authority.
“Today's launch is a testament to the professionalism and commitment to mission assurance, public safety and mission success on the Western Range.”
The Jason-3 mission, which is planned to last five years, is expected to allow scientists to better monitor and measure global sea surface heights and support seasonal and coastal forecasts, among other applications.
Most critically it will provide insight into the warming of the oceans, according to Laury Miller, the Jason-3 program scientist with NOAA, and be able to predict El Nino-type events many months in advance.
It also will be able to forecast hurricane intensity, detect oil spills, and in the issuing of wave warnings and in search-and-rescue missions.
Musk has said his company wants to retrieve rockets in an effort to refurbish and relaunch them, which could potentially lead to significant savings in launch costs.
The company was able to successfully land a booster on land in Florida last month but could not attempt a land-based landing in California on Sunday because it did not receive government clearance.
At a prelaunch press briefing Friday, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance for the Jason-3 mission, said SpaceX will work to get those clearances for a land-based landing for future launches.
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.
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