SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket once again on Sunday morning, for the sixth time in the last eight months.
The Falcon 9, a two-stage rocket, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 1:26 a.m. ET Sunday, and returned for a landing on the deck of a robotic ship less than nine minutes later. While in the air, it boosted JCSAT-16, a commercial communications satellite for SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation, to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit.
The Falcon 9's successful launches mark significant progress toward the private spaceflight company's goal of developing fully reusable rockets.
As The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts reported in December:
The ability to launch, land, refurbish, and relaunch rockets with the reliability of an airliner is widely seen as crucial if humanity is to become a truly spacefaring civilization. By shifting from expendable rockets to reusable rockets, launch costs are expected to drop significantly, reducing the price tag for putting payloads and people in space.
Not every launch of the Falcon 9 has had a happy ending: while the spacecraft successfully landed four times in July, it also failed to do so three times that same month. Representatives from the company acknowledged that there would be factors involved in Sunday's launch that could prevent the rocket from landing successfully.
"Given this mission’s GTO destination, the first-stage will be subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating, making a successful landing challenging," the company wrote in a press release prior to the launch.
Sunday's mission was the fourth to land on the robotic ship, named Of Course I Still Love You. Due to the distant destination of the rocket – Geostationary Transfer Orbit – it was unable to make it back to the launch site at Cape Canaveral, so the ship was its only landing option.
SpaceX could begin re-flying the first stages of the landed Falcon 9s as early as this fall, the company's founder, Elon Musk, has said.