If Hawthorne-based rocket maker SpaceX can make the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket reusable, it could dramatically reduce launch costs.
As part of the company's efforts toward that goal, after successfully launching six Orbcomm satellites into space aboard a Falcon 9, it "soft landed" the rocket's first stage in the ocean. But it wasn't perfect.
A video posted to the company's YouTube channel Tuesday shows the booster reentering Earth's atmosphere, restarting its main engines twice, deploying landing legs and plunging into the Atlantic.
One problem, however, was what company founder Elon Musk called a "kaboom" on his Twitter account: The impact with the water caused a breach in the booster's hull.
But despite the breach, the water landing provided all the data the rocket maker needs to make a successful landing in the future, SpaceX said. If the company can perfect the landing, it will be able to reuse the booster stage multiple times.
Last week's landing marks the second time a Falcon 9 has been soft-landed in the ocean – the first was in April, but the video of that event was damaged.
The latest test confirms that the booster can be returned from space at a velocity exceeding the sound barrier and brought to a landing at near zero velocity, the company said.
"We are highly confident of being able to land successfully on a floating launch pad or back at the launch site and refly the rocket with no required refurbishment," the company said in a statement.
The next few launches, which are very high velocity geostationary satellite missions, require too much fuel to allow a landing, the company said. But the next three launches after that will provide opportunities to again stick the landing.
A water landing will have a low probability of success, the company said, but two coming attempts to land on a solid surface are more likely to succeed.