SpaceX’s attempt earlier this week to once again land a rocket on a drone ship didn’t go well. But the difference between success and a broken rocket falling into the sea really isn’t big, as the video of the landing shows.
We’re still waiting on the close-up video from the camera on board the drone ship, which should give a better view of what happened, but the long-range camera gives some idea of what went wrong.
According to Elon Musk, the engine shut down slightly too early, thanks to “early liquid oxygen depletion,” which is fancy space-man way of saying “we ran out of gas.”
It’s not a miscalculation — this Falcon 9 rocket had to shoot its payload to geostationary orbit, a very high orbit that requires a lot of fuel to get there. As a result, the rocket was going faster, and it had less fuel to slow down than on previous attempts.
SpaceX knew it would be right up against the line of running out of fuel, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be quite this close. Another half-second of burn, and it probably would have shut down gracefully. As it happens, the landing wasn’t the crash that was initially reported, but it was hard enough to break the airframe and the engines.
Musk also said that 2016 is the “year of experimentation,” and he’s only expecting a 70% success rate overall for rocket landings. We’re only halfway through the year, but the stats so far say he’s pretty much dead on.