SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket put on a dazzling display of pyrotechnics Sunday evening as the heavy lifter ferried two government payloads to space. Roughly eight minutes later, spectators were treated to a double landing of the rocket’s two side boosters back at Cape Canaveral.
Sonic booms crackled overhead as the landings marked the 163rd and 164th successful booster recoveries for SpaceX. The rocket’s center core was discarded in the ocean due to fuel requirements necessary to deliver the payload to orbit.
One spectator in particular captured incredibly detailed footage of Falcon Heavy’s carefully choreographed orbital ballet that helps each rocket nail its landings.
SpaceX rockets are made up of four key components: the first stage, the second (or upper) stage, an interstage that connects the two together, as well as a payload fairing, which houses whatever cargo or satellites the rocket is carrying.
Two of those components, the first stage and the payload fairings, are designed to be reusable and together account for nearly 70 percent of the rocket’s cost, according to SpaceX.
After a SpaceX rocket launches, it goes through a series of steps that are designed to ensure the payload gets to its intended orbit. But after the first and second stages separate, the second stage continues on with the payload, while the first stage prepares to return to Earth where it will land either on land or on a floating platform in the ocean.
Once the first stage separates, the booster begins a sort of orbital ballet where it will flip around in mid air, and fires three of its engines as part of a boostback burn, which will orient itself for landing. This flip maneuver can be seen in detail in the launch footage from Astronomy Live.
The boostback burn is the first of three landing burns needed to slow the rocket down so that it can avoid a crash landing. Next, the booster will deploy a set of titanium grid fins which are used to help steer the rocket. Then the craft will light its engines again briefly for an entry burn, when it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere.
The booster is then guided to its landing spot with the help of the grid fins before its engines light one final time, as it ideally gently comes in for a landing.
SpaceX has been recovering rockets this way since 2015, when it recovered its first booster at Cape Canaveral.