SpaceX Lights up Night Sky with Launch and Land Landing

During a night launch there isn’t any confusion about the launchpad’s location along the horizon. The rocket stands bathed in a dozen of NASA’s brightest spotlights, shining upward to set the stage of one of man’s greatest technological accomplishments. And once the countdown clock reaches zero the light from the flames of the engines bursts from the launchpad and reflects off the waters of the beach, lighting the night as bright as day for an instant before turning to a pinpoint of light; fading as the rocket climbs the atmosphere to blend in with the stars.

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - SpaceX did not disappoint early Monday morning. The private space company's ninth cargo mission for NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract launched toward the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:45am ET. Less than ten minutes after liftoff, SpaceX then successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on land for the second time. 

After completing a u-turn at nearly ten times the speed of sound, Falcon 9’s first stage returned to Cape Canaveral and landed a short 7 miles down the road from where it launched. Residents in the area and spectators on the ground, accustomed to seeing rockets go up, have only twice now seen one come down in such a manner. Upon reentry, Falcon 9’s first stage broke into the atmosphere with two rapid sonic booms that were heard for dozens of miles up and down the Space Coast; touching down at SpaceX's Landing Complex 1.

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Quickly running out of room in their storage hanger, SpaceX now has five rockets for potential reuse. Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President of Flight Reliability at SpaceX, revealed yesterday at a prelaunch press conference that the rocket recovered from the company’s last resupply mission (CRS-8) will be the first to be flown again. According to Koenigsmann, SpaceX has yet to secure a customer willing to risk their payload atop the first rocket to launch into space twice, but the company expects to reuse the stage sometime this fall.

The rocket’s second stage, which separated from the first 2 minutes 24 seconds into flight, burned for 7 more minutes before releasing Dragon and its 5,000 lbs of cargo and science experiments. A two-day journey ahead, the Dragon capsule will rendezvous with the ISS July 20. From the station’s cupola, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams will use Canadarm2 to capture Dragon and birth it to the Earth-facing side of the Harmony module. 

NASA TV will broadcast the rendezvous and capture live July 20, at 5:30am ET, with vehicle birthing scheduled for 9:45am ET.

The Dragon capsule will remain at the ISS until August 29. Following its departure, it will return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, California with over 1,200 lbs of science experiments currently waiting aboard the station to be unloaded.

Fulfilling its continued commitment to its CRS contract with NASA, CRS-9 puts SpaceX close to the halfway point of the up to 20 missions that will bring Dragon to the ISS. Awarded a second CRS contract in January 2016, NASA plans to utilize SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule to resupply the station through 2024.

Image courtesy of SpaceX