SpaceX has successfully landed its powerful Falcon 9 rocket in an upright position at Cape Canaveral, an historic first in the company’s bid to make reusable rockets.
“The Falcon has landed,” a commentator said above the screams and cheers of people gathered at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, as images on SpaceX’s webcast showed the first stage of the rocket touching down.
The upgraded 23-storey-tall rocket lifted off on Tuesday afternoon on a satellite-delivery mission and a test flight of a booster rocket return-and-landing system.
The upper-stage booster continued its ascent to Earth orbit with its payload.
The rocket’s main stage then turned around, fired a series of engine burns, deployed landing legs, and settled itself onto a newly refurbished landing pad occupying a decommissioned missile site about 10 kilometres from the launch pad.
Company employees erupted in jubilation as they watched a live stream of the white booster slowly descending amid a glowing orange ball.
US space agency NASA applauded the feat.
“Congratulations @SpaceX on your successful vertical landing of the first stage back on Earth!” NASA said in a tweet.
The launch and successful return of the rocket’s first stage, followed by deployment of all 11 satellites delivered to orbit for a telecommunications customer, marked the first SpaceX flight since a June accident that destroyed a cargo rocket bound for the International Space Station.
Investigators traced the problem to a faulty support beam that held a bottle of helium inside the rocket’s upper-stage liquid oxygen tank. When the strut broke, helium flooded into the tank, causing it to over-pressurise and then explode.
A smooth mission would provide a major boost to privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, the California-based company founded and operated by high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
“Welcome back, baby,” Mr Musk said in a celebratory tweet.
Mr Musk has said the ability to return its rockets to Earth so they can be refurbished and re-flown would slash his company’s operational costs in the burgeoning and highly competitive private space launch industry.
SpaceX, which has more than 60 launch missions pending collectively worth about $11 billion, previously experimented unsuccessfully with attempts to land its rockets on a platform in the ocean.
Rival company Blue Origin, a space start-up founded by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, nailed a similar return rocket landing test last month, but the SpaceX feat was achieved during an actual commercial launch.
Analysts have pointed out that although New Shepard was first, SpaceX’s feat would be harder to accomplish because the Falcon 9 flies higher in altitude.
“Because SpaceX’s vehicle was designed to place a constellation of satellites in orbit, the Falcon 9’s first stage flew at significantly greater speeds and more than double the altitude of what New Shepherd reached last month,” the Commercial Spaceflight Federation said in a statement.
It called the landing an “incredible achievement” in an industry that is seeking to drive down costs and make spaceflight cheaper and more accessible to tourists and adventurers.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield added his congratulations.
“That was a hard landing to stick. Opens a brand new door to space travel. I look forward to the details,” he wrote on Twitter.
-AAP, with agencies