US space company SpaceX has successfully landed a rocket upright for the first time, a major milestone in the drive to cut costs by making rockets reusable.
The Falcon 9 rocket made a graceful arc back to Earth and touched down vertically at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Monday, minutes after launching a payload of satellites to orbit.
“The Falcon has landed,” a commentator said above the screams and cheers of people gathered at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
SpaceX, headed by the internet tycoon Elon Musk, is striving to revolutionise the rocket industry, which currently loses many millions of dollars in jettisoned machinery and sophisticated rocket components after each launch.
“I still can’t quite believe it,” Musk said in a teleconference after the landing. “I think this is a revolutionary moment. No one has ever brought an orbital-class booster back intact.”
Previous attempts to land the Falcon 9’s first stage on a floating ocean platform had failed – with the rocket either colliding with the autonomous drone ship or tipping over.
But this time, video images on SpaceX’s live webcast showed the tall, white portion of the rocket – known as the first stage – appearing to settle down firmly and stick the landing.
The rocket reached a height of 200 kilometres before heading back to Earth and touching down at a former US Air Force rocket and missile testing range that was last used in 1978.
Video images were cut off within seconds of the landing, and the SpaceX live webcast returned to its commentators, who described the successful deployment of the rocket’s payload of 11 satellites for ORBCOMM, a global communications company.
The US space agency NASA applauded the feat.