SpaceX's third attempt to land a rocket on a barge failed after a landing leg broke and it tipped over, but the lessons learned from the landing may help Elon Musk and his team edge closer to realizing their goal of reusing rockets.
The rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 1:42 p.m. ET Sunday, carrying the Jason-3, a NASA and NOAA satellite designed to measure the surface of the world's oceans.
Everything appeared to go according to plan until the moment the rocket landed on the droneship. Video of the landing, which occurred 200 miles off the coast of California, shows the Falcon 9 upright for a moment before it tips over and explodes.
Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time! Won't be last RUD, but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing. pic.twitter.com/w007TccANJ— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016
Musk said the lockout device, a collet, didn't latch on one of the rocket's four legs, causing it to tip over after landing. Posting a spectacular video of the landing to Instagram, Musk speculated the root cause may have been ice buildup from condensation created from heavy fog before the rocket launched.
Definitely harder to land on a ship. Similar to an aircraft carrier vs land: much smaller target area, that's also translating & rotating.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016
However, that was not what prevented it being good. Touchdown speed was ok, but a leg lockout didn't latch, so it tipped over after landing.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016
The landing was so precise, SpaceX said it was within about 4 feet of the droneship's center.
Musk has said drone ship landings are needed for "high velocity missions," which would allow payloads such as satellites to reach a higher orbit. Nailing the landing is huge for SpaceX and space travel as a whole because Musk has previously said he believes reusing rockets -- which cost as much as a commercial airplane -- could reduce the cost of access to space by a factor of one hundred.
Previous attempts had come close to landing on the barge but failed when they narrowly missed the mark and suffered crash landings. The precise landing of the Falcon 9 last month at Cape Canaveral, Florida, has many eager to see whether Musk and his team can pull off their second rocket landing.
The day wasn't a total bust, though. While SpaceX has another rocket landing attempt to learn from, backers were also able to celebrate the successful deployment of the Jason-3 satellite.