SpaceX was able to put the EUTELSAT 117 West B and ABS-2A satellites into a geostationary transfer orbit shortly after it blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force station this morning in Florida. If this were any other company, that would have meant “mission accomplished” and on to the next rocket launch. But this is SpaceX we’re talking about. Like it has done on its three most recent launches, the company hoped to successfully land the Falcon 9 on its floating drone ship so that it could be reused again in the future.
Unfortunately for SpaceX, the space gods were not looking down favorably on the company today. While the Falcon 9 definitely approached the drone ship right on target, it hit the drone ship at a high rate of speed, resulting in a complete loss of the vehicle. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, this was likely the “hardest impact to date,” but noted that the drone ship was undamaged.
Musk has warned space enthusiasts in the past that landings after putting payloads into a geostationary transfer orbit are much trickier and result in the Falcon 9 returning at a higher rate of speed, making a successful landing less likely. Musk took to Twitter to confirm that the Falcon 9 splattered on impact:
Ascent phase & satellites look good, but booster rocket had a RUD on droneship— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 15, 2016
In case you were wondering, Musk describes a RUD as Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly. Musk went on to describe that at least one of the Falcon 9’s three landing engines was not operating nominally at the time of impact:
Looks like thrust was low on 1 of 3 landing engines. High g landings v sensitive to all engines operating at max.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 15, 2016
With that being said, Musk said that SpaceX is already in retooling mode to ensure that with future Falcon 9 missions, the two remaining “good” landing engines would be able to compensate for a loss of thrust in the third engine. There’s no word on if this would even be possible if two landing engines are operating outside of spec.
Musk hopes to have these upgrades in place by the end of the year for future Falcon 9 launches.