SpaceX Rocket Survives Experimental High-Thrust Landing at Sea (Photo)

SpaceX is now recovering its rockets without even really trying.

One of the company's two-stage Falcon 9 rockets successfully launched the GovSat-1 communications satellite to orbit today (Jan. 31) from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX usually tries to land Falcon 9 first stages during such liftoffs, either on a "drone ship" at sea or back on terra firma, so the boosters can be reused.

But the company didn't do that today. Instead, the first stage came in for a sort of mock touchdown over the open ocean off the Florida coast, just like in the early days before SpaceX had mastered this whole rocket-landing thing. (The company has almost two dozen pinpoint touchdowns under its belt to date)

A few hours after the GovSat-1 launch, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed why this Falcon 9 first stage had no landing platform.  

"This rocket was meant to test very high retrothrust landing in water so it didn’t hurt the droneship, but amazingly it has survived. We will try to tow it back to shore," Musk said via Twitter, where he posted a photo of the booster floating atop the waves.

In a reply to Twitter commenters, Musk said that today's "landing" involved three of the first stage's nine Merlin engines. The boosters have traditionally used just one engine during touchdown operations.

This first stage already had one launch and landing under its belt coming in to today: It also helped loft the NROL-76 spy satellite for the United States National Reconnaissance Office back in May 2017.

Today's launch marked the sixth time that SpaceX has lofted a spacecraft using a pre-flown booster. The company aims to make such reuse frequent and commonplace, slashing the cost of spaceflight in the process.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.