A SpaceX Dragon capsule is en route to the International Space Station after a successful launch today. However, the rocket landing-which SpaceX has made routine by this point-went off less swimmingly.
Or maybe more swimmingly, depending on how you look at it.
The rocket’s first stage booster-the large bottom half of the rocket that gets the craft into space-typically lands back on a platform either on land or at sea. But during Wednesday’s launch, a malfunction caused the booster to land a little off target. It came down into the water off the coast of Florida, a few hundred feet from the launchpad.
“Grid fin hydraulic pump stalled, so Falcon landed just out to sea,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a tweet. “Appears to be undamaged & is transmitting data. Recovery ship dispatched.”
In a video Musk posted from the perspective of the failed booster, one of the grid fins appears to be stuck, which undoubtedly threw the rocket off course. The grid fins are positioned near the base of the rocket and are used in combination with the rocket nozzles to steer the booster during landing.
Engines stabilized rocket spin just in time, enabling an intact landing in water! Ships en route to rescue Falcon. pic.twitter.com/O3h8eCgGJ7- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 5, 2018
In this case, the malfunctioning grid fin caused the rocket to lose control and begin spiraling during approach. Fortunately, Musk says in another tweet, the “engines stabilized rocket spin just in time, enabling an intact landing in water.” That is, the rocket slowed enough before landing to not crash and burn, and the water likely cushioned the rocket enough not to cause serious damage.
So will this rocket ever fly again? SpaceX will likely spend some time to evaluate the damage before making a ruling, but it’s probably a long shot. Instead, the spent booster will likely contribute in a different way: by providing SpaceX a reason to redesign its hydraulic system. According to Musk, the company never designed redundancy into that system because landing the rockets was always a secondary priority after getting the payloads into orbit.
“Some landing systems are not redundant, as landing is considered ground safety critical, but not mission critical,” said Musk in another tweet. “Given this event, we will likely add a backup pump & lines,” he continued, suggesting that this is a problem that won’t plague future rockets.
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