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Jason DavisMay 27, 2016

Three-peat! SpaceX sticks another drone ship landing

SpaceX continued its impressive string of first stage recoveries today, sticking a Falcon 9 drone ship landing during the successful launch of THAICOM 8, a communications satellite.

That's three sea landings in a row, and the company's fourth overall since returning a rocket stage to Cape Canaveral last December.

THAICOM 8 drone ship landing


THAICOM 8 drone ship landing

I don't have a lot to say beyond the excellent coverage you'll find at space news outlets like Spaceflight NowSpace News and, as well as what Elon Musk says on Twitter. It sounds like Musk is a little concerned about the rocket making it safely back to shore:

Crush core is aluminum honeycomb for energy absorption in the telescoping actuator. Easy to replace (if Falcon makes it back to port).

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 27, 2016

After the last drone ship landing, I collected some video screenshots from every successful recovery attempt, right at the moment of main engine cutoff and first stage separation. The screenshots are sequential from ORBCOMM-2 all the up to today's THAICOM 8 launch:

Falcon 9 first stage velocity and altitude comparisons


Falcon 9 first stage velocity and altitude comparisons
These four screenshots show Falcon 9 velocity and altitudes at the approximate moment of main engine cutoff, just before stage separation. From top: ORBCOMM-2, CRS-8, JCSAT-14, and THAICOM 8.

This gives you an idea of how much the difficulty level has increased with every landing success. These screenshots aren't perfectly accurate—and this also assumes the displayed telemetry matches what's happening in the video—but it's close enough to illustrate how much faster the Falcon 9 has been traveling during the last two flights. Those payloads were headed to geostationary transfer orbits, which requires a lot more speed and energy than low-Earth orbit launches. Here are the numbers:

Payload  Destination Speed at MECO/separation, km/h (estimated) Altitude, km (estimated)
ORBCOMM-2 LEO  5993 75.9
CRS-8 LEO  6622 70.4
JCSAT-14 GTO 8302 65.1
THAICOM 8  GTO  8313 68.5

The table also shows you how launch trajectories vary depending on orbital destinatination. Notice how the first stage burn for low-Earth orbit puts the rocket at a slightly higher altitude.

As far as THAICOM 8 is concerned, you can be sure SpaceX has more pretty pictures and video on the way. Keep an eye on their Flickr and Twitter accounts for more.

Read more: Commercial spaceflight

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Jason Davis

Editorial Director for The Planetary Society
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