A rocket flying toward the ground is usually a bad sign, but for aerospace company SpaceX, it was a huge success. With engines blazing, the first section of a Falcon 9 rocket returned safely to Earth after a December 21 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, landing vertically on a platform just down the road at another former launch site.
The landing is a milestone for the company; earlier attempts to land on a barge at sea didn’t go as well. For the latest launch, the rocket stage flew to about 75 kilometers before turning around, leaving the rest of the rocket to deliver a package of satellites into low-Earth orbit.
Many rockets use multiple stages, or engine sets, to reduce weight during launch. Once the fuel in one stage is depleted, it drops away and the next stage ignites. Historically, spent rocket stages have been unceremoniously jettisoned and lost at sea. Reusable stages, the company hopes, will greatly reduce costs for future flights.
SpaceX isn’t alone in its clamor for rocket recycling. Earlier this year, the booster stage of a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket dramatically touched down after reaching 100 kilometers from the ground.