Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX blasted a government weather satellite into orbit on Wednesday, but the company called off its much anticipated attempt at landing the rocket on an ocean barge.
The Falcon 9 rocket carried a satellite that had been proposed 17 years ago by then-Vice President Al Gore. Its primary purpose is to provide early warning of solar storms that scientists say can disrupt power grids and potentially cause mass blackouts.
Three hours before the liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla., SpaceX said rough seas had forced it to cancel the attempt to land the rocket’s first stage on a barge – which it calls the drone ship -- stationed several hundred miles off Florida’s coast.
“The drone ship was designed to operate in all but the most extreme weather,” the company said in a statement. “We are experiencing just such weather in the Atlantic with waves reaching up to three stories in height crashing over the decks.”
Only three of the ship’s four engines were working, the company said, making it difficult to manage the waves.
The landing attempt had gained widespread attention because of its potential to revolutionize space travel. Musk wants to recover the rocket’s first stage, which includes the nine engines that blast it to space, and use it on future flights – a feat that could slash costs.
The company could attempt the ocean landing again at a launch scheduled for April.
Musk tweeted just before the launch, “Planning a significant upgrade of the droneship for future missions to handle literally anything.”
The rocket blasted off at 3:03 p.m. PST, carrying the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR. The satellite is a joint project of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Air Force.
It was the first time SpaceX had lofted a satellite to a deep-space orbit. The satellite is on its way to an orbit almost 1 million miles from Earth, a place where the gravitational pull from the planet and the sun cancel each other out, making it easier for a spacecraft to keep its position.
The satellite will warn of solar storms caused by bursts of high-energy particles from the sun. Government scientists say the storms have the potential to significantly disrupt public infrastructure systems, including telecommunications and GPS.
NASA also has a camera on the satellite that will take photos of the Earth’s entire sunlit face. Gore proposed the space camera years ago, saying it could take photos of cloud formations, dust storms, large fires and other phenomena. He touted the plan as a way to interest young people in science and the environment.
In 1999, however, congressional Republicans cut off the project’s funding, calling it unnecessary. Years later, the satellite was taken out of storage and the project was restarted, mostly because of its potential to better forecast solar storms.
SpaceX first attempted to land a rocket on the barge last month. The rocket’s guidance system appeared to function properly, flying it from supersonic speed in space down to the football-field-sized-barge.
However, the rocket did not stay upright as it slowed and neared the barge. Instead, it exploded, causing minor damage to the drone ship. Musk later said the rocket had run out of hydraulic fluid needed by the fins used to steer it. He tweeted a video of the crash, calling it a “full RUD” event or “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
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