SpaceX booster blasted from Florida makes safe return to Earth

SpaceX booster blasted from Florida makes safe return to Earth
PHOTO: AFP

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Monday with a payload of communications satellites.

The reusable main-stage booster then turned around, flew back to Cape Canaveral and landed safely near its launchpad in a dramatic spaceflight first.

The mission, capped by delivery of all 11 satellites to orbit for launch customer ORBCOMM, unfolded in just over 30 minutes. It marked a pivotal reversal of fortunes for privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which was founded by high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.

The flight was the first for Musk's California-based company since a rocket failure in June destroyed a cargo spaceship being carried on a resupply mission bound for the International Space Station.

The upgraded, 23-story-tall Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, with the nine-engine suborbital main stage returning 10 minutes later to a landing site about 10 kilometers south of its launchpad.

The upper-stage continued its ascent to Earth orbit with its payload.

Musk has said the ability to return his rockets to Earth so they can be refurbished and reflown would slash his company's operating costs in the burgeoning and highly competitive private space launch industry.

SpaceX employees cheered as they watched live video footage of the 47.5-meter-tall white first-stage booster slowly descending upright through a damp, darkened night sky to make a picture-perfect landing.

"Welcome back, baby!" Musk wrote in a celebratory message he posted on Twitter.

Minutes after blastoff, the Falcon 9's first-stage rocket separated from its upper-stage booster, which continued on into orbit to release ORBCOMM's satellites about 800 km above the Earth.

Monday's deployment completed a US$200 million (S$281 million) 17-satellite network that will provide machine-to-machine messaging services on the ground-such as between retailers and shipping containers.

SpaceX has more than 60 launch missions pending worth about US$8 billion.

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