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SpaceX loses Falcon 9 booster in rare landing mishap

SpaceX successfully launched another batch of satellites for its Starlink internet-from-space initiative earlier this week, but the mission failed to safely land the first-stage Falcon 9 booster on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The mishap came as a surprise, as it was the first such failure since March 2020, breaking a streak of 24 successful Falcon 9 launches and landings for the California-based company.

SpaceX has yet to explain the reason behind the failure, which occurred soon after the rocket blasted into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

A livestream of the mission showed both the rocket launch and satellite deployment. But when SpaceX’s video feed cut to a view of the waiting drone ship shortly before the booster was expected to touch down, nothing happened.

It seems highly likely that the booster went down in the sea, but several days later, there’s still no word on the cause of the mishap, and whether SpaceX managed to recover the booster from the ocean.

The lost booster, which is powered by nine Merlin engines, was on its sixth flight for SpaceX after first launching in December 2019, when it carried cargo to the International Space Station. Other missions have included satellite launches, with its most recent flight taking place in December 2020 to deploy a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Failed landings when SpaceX was in the early stages of developing its reusable rocket system weren’t uncommon, but in recent years, the Falcon 9 boosters have been landing upright on a drone ship or on land almost without incident. This video shows a great view of a perfect landing.

Following its most recent landing failure in March 2020, SpaceX boss Elon Musk put the cause down to a small amount of cleaning fluid trapped inside a sensor that later ignited.

Small amount of isopropyl alcohol (cleaning fluid) was trapped in a sensor dead leg & ignited in flight

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 22, 2020

The company’s delay in releasing details about the latest booster loss suggests it’s still analyzing data linked to the incident. Unless the investigation uncovers a serious anomaly, it’s unlikely the incident will derail SpaceX’s busy launch schedule, which already stretches into 2023.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is also trying to work out how it can land its next-generation Starship rocket without it bursting into flames. Both high-altitude test flights for the new booster have ended in spectacular fireballs, with Musk putting the chances of a safe landing in the third test at only 60 percent. Still, as Starship is a new vehicle in the early stages of development, crashes aren’t entirely unexpected. For SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, however, such mishaps now come as a costly surprise and need to be avoided.

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Trevor Mogg
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