A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket flared to life in the early hours of Friday morning to launch a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The rocket carried, among other things, a floating robot head. That’s not the only reason this launch was special. Both the Falcon 9 first stage booster and the Dragon capsule have been used in previous launches, allowing SpaceX to again gloat about its reusable rocket prowess.
The mission launched at 5:42 AM from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The second stage separated and made its way into orbit. It will meet up with the space station on Monday to deliver 5,900 pounds (2,700 kg) of cargo. That includes the aforementioned robot head, but also NASA’s Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) instrument. In fact, more than half the total mass consists of scientific equipment.
As for Friday’s launch, the Dragon capsule went to the ISS previously in July of 2016. The first stage booster sent NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) into space back in April. Just 10 weeks for a complete refit and reuse of a Falcon 9 rocket is impressive. You can see the full SpaceX webcast of the launch below (the launch starts around 18 minutes).
This feat might have been even more impressive if SpaceX had landed the Falcon 9 again, but that wasn’t in the cards. It wasn’t so much that it would have been unusually difficult, but SpaceX simply didn’t need this rocket booster anymore. The company recently debuted the Falcon 9 Block 5, which is the final variant of the vehicle. The rocket from Friday’s launch was an older Block 4 variant. Rather than go to the expense of retrieving and transporting it, SpaceX just let it drop into the ocean.
The Dragon will stay linked with the ISS for a month, eventually returning to Earth with 2,860 pounds (1,297 kg) of scientific gear that is no longer needed on the station. SpaceX hasn’t said if it plans to use that vehicle a third time.
This marks the second time NASA has flown a completely reused launch vehicle. The last time was in December of 2017, which was another ISS resupply mission. SpaceX has so far landed Falcon 9 boosters 25 times and flown 14 of those rockets a second time. As it further develops reusable rocket technology, SpaceX hopes to lower the cost of launches significantly. Not only will it make more profit, but it can undercut other launch providers like Orbital ATK and ULA.
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