The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying the SAOCOM 1A and ITASAT 1 satellites, as seen on October 7, 2018 near Santa Barbara, California.
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“The Falcon has landed.”
As SpaceX declared victory on its live webcast, cheers erupted on a Southern California hilltop, where a group had gathered to witness the company’s latest rocket launch (and landing). SpaceX had just achieved another first: touching down a rocket on California soil. Until now, the company’s West Coast landings had all taken place on the deck of the company’s drone ship Just Read the Instructions. But following its carefully choreographed orbital gymnastics, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster stuck its landing in the center of LZ-4, SpaceX’s new landing pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Minutes earlier, the Falcon 9 rocket had leapt off the pad, tasked with delivering Argentina’s newest Earth-observing satellite—SAOCOMM-1A— into space. Without a single cloud in the night sky, the Falcon’s pyrotechnics were on full display. Exhaust from the rocket undulated through the atmosphere like ripples across a pond. Residents across the state caught sight of the unusual light show, as portions of the rocket’s flight were illuminated by the last bits of light lingering from a sun that had already set.
The rocket that starred in tonight’s spectacular launch was the second of SpaceX’s next-generation Falcon 9, dubbed the Block 5, to refly. The veteran flyer had first delivered 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites into orbit on July 25. Following that flight, the booster had landed safely at sea, before getting hauled back to land. Now it stands tall atop LZ-4.
Following a rocket launch, the company has two options for recovering boosters: returning to land, using a specially constructed landing pad, or touching down at sea, on the deck of one of the company’s two drone ships. The option SpaceX picks depends largely on the rocket’s payload. Returning to land requires more fuel than lowering onto a drone ship, so launches that use up lots of propellant during ascent (typically larger, heavier payloads) usually have to land in the ocean. But lighter payloads, like this one bound for low-Earth orbit, have plenty of fuel reserves left to trek back to land.