Activist billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX has sent its Falcon 9 rocket into space and back again - an important breakthrough for reusable rockets in space exploration.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 gently touched down at Cape Canaveral 10 minutes after lift-off, to employees’ cheers.
This was SpaceX’s first flight since June, when one of its rockets exploded en-route to the International Space Station, and also the first time ever that the firm has successfully returned a rocket to land upright in reusable conditions.
“We made history today by landing a stage of our rocket back on land,” said a SpaceX spokesperson on the live webcast of the launch.
"This has been a wildly successful return to flight for SpaceX."
As the second stage of the rocket continued its mission to deliver 11 communication satellites to the ISS, the smooth landing of the first stage is an important step towards reusable rockets, a key concern for SpaceX trying to stay ahead in the private space race.
Reusable space has been called the future of exploration, not least for America’s space entrepreneurs. And Musk’s rivals have been here already, as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin landed its New Shepard rocket upright after launch in November.Shepard rocket upright after launch in November.
Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon's suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) December 22, 2015
But the Falcon 9 landing is more significant, according to Renaud Durand, aerospace specialist at Vendigital.
"The rocket is much bigger in size and it has travelled a much greater distance – going into GT orbit before its return to earth, he said, adding that the landing would have "massive implications for the space industry".
The technology has the potential to slash the cost of exploration, especially for launches, as rockets will no longer have to be used just once and then discarded in the sea.
Musk and SpaceX will be all the more relieved about yesterday’s success considering the firm’s last mission in June, when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded over the Atlantic just two minutes after take-off.