Last night, SpaceX’s SAOCOM 1A mission from Vandenberg AFB in California went off without a hitch. For all appearances, it was a routine satellite launch to a low polar orbit. The timing, just after sunset, made for some beautiful sights (or terrifying sights, depending on the viewer). The spacecraft and their exhaust gases were high enough to be illuminated by the sun, which was well over the horizon by launch time.
What caught my attention, however, was the return-to-launch-site (RTLS) booster landing. All previous RTLS landings have been on the US east coast, at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral AFS LZ-1 landing pad, which is far removed from the launch pads SLC-40 and LC-39A at 9 km (5.6 mi) and 14.8 km (9.2 mi), respectively. The LZ-4 landing pad on the west coast, however, is relatively close to the launch pad, at only about 425 meters (1400 ft or about a quarter of a mile). SpaceX captured the difference beautifully in the photo below.
Launch photographer John Kraus (one of my personal favorites) captured a similarly dramatic photo from a different perspective, using a sound-activated camera:
The ability to land boosters back at the launch site is critical to quick turnaround and low-cost reusability of Falcon 9. Landing at sea requires waiting on the landing ship to return to port, loading onto a truck, and transport back to the launch site. SpaceX are working on the ability to reuse the same first stage booster within 24 hours of a launch.
You can see more great shots from last night’s mission, and many more on SpaceX’s Flickr account and John Kraus’ website. Congratulations to SpaceX on the christening of their new landing pad, and nice work to the photographer(s)!