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Video shows Falcon 9's rocket-assisted splashdown

Posted: July 23, 2014
Updated with SpaceX comments

SpaceX released a video clip Tuesday showing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket descending back to Earth for a controlled, low-speed splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral following launch last week.

The company says the rocket-assisted touchdown is the second consecutive time it has achieved a soft landing of the 12-foot-diameter first stage after a launch, putting SpaceX closer to returning a first stage to a landing pad near Cape Canaveral.

A camera mounted on the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage recorded these views of its descent into the Atlantic Ocean following a July 14 launch from Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX
The July 14 launch with six Orbcomm communications satellites was the first time video from an on-board camera clearly showed key milestones in the descent, such as two ignitions of a subset of the first stage's Merlin 1D engines to slow down the rocket and guide it to the recovery zone. The video also shows the rocket's four carbon fiber and aluminum honeycomb landing legs deploying moments before falling into ocean.

A similar video of the first stage's descent during a Falcon 9 launch in April was obscured by a poor live communications link.

A SpaceX spokesperson said Wednesday there were no plans to release video of the descent from other vantage points. SpaceX founder Elon Musk's private jet and a NASA WB-57 surveillance plane were in the area to monitor the rocket's descent and could have recorded video.

The rocket's engines are designed to adjust their throttle settings to achieve a gentle splashdown.

SpaceX plans to make the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage reusable in a bid to reduce the costs of launches.

"This test confirms that the Falcon 9 booster is able consistently to re-enter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs and touch down at near zero velocity," SpaceX said in a statement accompanying the video release.

Recovery crews in the Atlantic Ocean were ready to retrieve the rocket stage after splashdown, but SpaceX says the booster broke apart moments after splashdown.

"After landing, the vehicle tipped sideways as planned to its final water safing state in a nearly horizontal position," SpaceX said. "The water impact caused loss of hull integrity, but we received all the necessary data to achieve a successful landing on a future flight."

Musk called the loss of hull integrity a "kaboom" in a tweet after the launch. He later posted that a data review indicated the stage's structural break-up was caused by a "body slam, maybe from a self-generated wave."

The Falcon 9 rocket's performance limitations will keep engineers from attempting ocean landings on the launcher's next two missions, which are slated to carry the AsiaSat 8 and AsiaSat 6 telecom satellites into geostationary transfer orbit, a high-altitude orbit stretching up to 22,300 miles above Earth.

Built by Space Systems/Loral, both satellites for Hong Kong-based AsiaSat weigh more than 3 metric tons at launch.

The first launch with AsiaSat 8 is set for Aug. 4.

"At this point, 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," SpaceX said. "However, our next couple launches are for very high velocity geostationary satellite missions, which don't allow enough residual propellant for landing. In the longer term, missions like that will fly on Falcon Heavy, but until then Falcon 9 will need to fly in expendable mode."

SpaceX's first two launches to geostationary transfer orbit -- with the SES 8 and Thaicom 6 satellites in December and January -- also did not include first stage landing attempts.

Falcon 9 launches for Orbcomm, which operates its satellites in low Earth orbit about 400 miles up, and SpaceX's resupply missions to the International Space Station do not take up all of the rocket's lift capacity, leaving leftover fuel for experimental maneuvers after the first stage's main job is done.

SpaceX said the next water landing attempt will be on the 13th flight of the Falcon 9, which is scheduled for launch as soon as Sept. 12 with a Dragon cargo capsule for the space station.

Officials are targeting the following two Falcon 9 flights this fall as the first missions to try a landing on a solid surface.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.