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Jason DavisJanuary 17, 2016

SpaceX Successfully Launches Ocean Satellite but Breaks a Leg on Drone Ship

The Jason-3 ocean monitoring satellite successfully reached orbit today following a late morning launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. But SpaceX's third attempt to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship came up short. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said one of the rocket's four deployable landing legs failed to lock in place, causing the rocket to tip over. 

Click here to read our launch preview. Here's a recap of the launch and landing attempt:

The rocket was rolled to the pad on Friday, January 15:

Jason-3 Falcon 9 rollout

SpaceX

Jason-3 Falcon 9 rollout

It went vertical on Saturday:

Jason-3 raised into position

SpaceX

Jason-3 raised into position
Jason-3 ready for launch

NASA / Bill Ingalls

Jason-3 ready for launch

Meanwhile, the drone ship Just Read the Instructions waited in the Pacific Ocean:

Out at sea for tomorrow's launch and landing attempt pic.twitter.com/9LMsj6qryI

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 17, 2016

Liftoff occured at 1:42 p.m. EST (18:42 UTC). Heavy fog obscured views of the launch:

NASA

Jason-3 launch video

NASA posted a solitary, unobscured ascent photograph captured by Bill Ingalls:

Jason-3 ascent

NASA / Bill Ingalls

Jason-3 ascent

After first stage separation, the Just Read the Instructions waited:

Just Read the Instructions waits for Jason-3 stage

SpaceX

Just Read the Instructions waits for Jason-3 stage

Live video from the drone ship cut out as the second stage and payload entered a coast phase.

Standing by for status of stage one. Second stage and Jason-3 now in nominal coast phase.

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 17, 2016

Bad news on the first stage arrived a few minutes later:

First stage on target at droneship but looks like hard landing; broke landing leg. Primary mission remains nominal → https://t.co/tdni53IviI

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 17, 2016

But the primary mission of deploying Jason-3 was a success:

Second stage re-ignition successful. Jason-3 satellite has been deployed.

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 17, 2016

SpaceX offered a commentary free version of their webcast. Here it is; spacecraft deployment comes about one hour, 38 minutes into the video:

SpaceX

SpaceX commentary-free webcast

Further analysis revealed the first stage was right on target. SpaceX appears to have mastered the accuracy portion of their drone ship landings; they just need to perfect the touchdown: 

After further data review, stage landed softly but leg 3 didn't lockout. Was within 1.3 meters of droneship center

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 17, 2016

Elon Musk tweeted the aftermath of the rocket's Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly, or RUD:

Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time! Won't be last RUD, but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing. pic.twitter.com/w007TccANJ

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016

He went on to re-iterate a few details about land versus drone ship recovery scenarios:

As mentioned before, ship landings are needed for high velocity missions. Altitude & distance don't mean much for orbit. All about speed.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016

Ship landings are not needed for flexibility or to save fuel costs. Just not physically possible to return to launch site

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016

If speed at stage separation > ~6000 km/hr. With a ship, no need to zero out lateral velocity, so can stage at up to ~9000 km/h.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016

Read more: commercial spaceflight, pretty pictures, mission status

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Jason Davis

Journalist and Digital Editor for The Planetary Society
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