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SpaceX Falcon rocket launches, makes hard landing

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Apr 15, 2015, 5:14 UTC

Sen—A Space Exploration Technologies Falcon 9 rocket blasted off on its 16th mission Tuesday, sending a Dragon cargo ship on its way to the International Space Station, then attempted to land itself on a customized barge stationed in the ocean.

As Dragon separated from the rocket's upper-stage, beginning a three-day trip to the orbital outpost, the discarded first-stage landed itself about 200 miles northeast of its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

"Rocket landed on droneship but too hard for survival," SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk posted on Twitter around 4:30 p.m. EDT (20:30 UTC), 20 minutes after the rocket soared off the launch pad.

There was no immediate word if the platform, named "Just Read the Instructions" after a science fiction story, was damaged.

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Image of the Falcon 9 first stage heading toward its landing onthe droneship. Image credit: SpaceX

SpaceX upgraded the platform after high seas forced the company to cancel a landing attempt in February, though that rocket did successfully hover vertically over the ocean before plunging into the sea. It, like all previous Falcon boosters that SpaceX has attempted to recover, was destroyed.

During an initial attempt to land on the the platform in January, the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid to maneuver its steering fins. It crashed into the barge, causing minor damage.

SpaceX's next launch, a satellite-delivery mission for the government of Turkmenistan, requires too much fuel for the first-stage to attempt the landing. The next mission after that, slated for mid-June, is another cargo run for NASA, which does give the rocket enough fuel margins to attempt the flyback.

Before launch, SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann told reporters he put the odds of a successful landing at 75 or 80 percent, but Musk on Monday downgraded the prediction to less than 50 percent.

By the end of the year, though, Musk figures there's an 80 percent chance a rocket will nail the landing.

SpaceX already is preparing landing pads at itsFlorida and California launch sites for the boosters to fly themselves back to land.

Tuesday's launch was delayed one day by poor weather in Florida. The Dragon cargo ship, which is loaded with more than 4,300 pounds (1,950 kilograms) of food, clothing, equipment and science experiments is due to arrive around 7 a.m. EDT (11 am UTC) Friday.

The cargo includes several commercially backed science experiments, includinga study to develop artificial muscles and pharmaceutical crystal growth test. An Italian company also is flying an espresso machine, which the live-aboard crew will test in orbit.