Falcon 9 flight 20
An artistic depiction of a Falcon 9 second stage with an exposed payload bay and an Orbcomm-OG2 satellite orbiting above Earth.
Official patch for Orbcomm-OG2 mission
Falcon 9 Full Thrust launch
Launch22 December 2015; 8 years ago (22 December 2015), 01:29:00 UTC
PadCape Canaveral, SLC-40
PayloadOrbcomm-OG2 × 11
First stageB1019.1
Falcon launches

Falcon 9 flight 20 (also known as Orbcomm OG2 M2)[1] was a Falcon 9 space launch that occurred on 22 December 2015 at 01:29:00 UTC (21 December, 8:29:00 pm local time). It was the first time that the first stage of an orbital rocket made a successful return and vertical landing.[2][3][4][5]

The successful landing of the first stage at Landing Zone 1, near the launch site, was the result of a five-year technology development program to develop a reusable launch system and came on a flight test that followed the primary launch mission. Following separation of the second stage, SpaceX conducted the eighth of its controlled booster descent tests of the spent first stage, the first in which the descent target location was on land, and also the first ever successful landing.

Prior to this flight, SpaceX's two previous attempts at a vertical landing and booster recovery ended in failure to recover the rocket.[6][7] The success of flight 20 marked a significant milestone en route to the company's goal of creating a reusable rocket system that would significantly reduce the cost of launching payloads into orbit.[8][9]

Falcon 9 flight 20 was the first launch of the substantially upgraded Falcon 9 Full Thrust version of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. It carried 11 Orbcomm-OG2 satellites to Earth orbit. The launch was also notable as it was the first SpaceX launch following the catastrophic failure of a Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle's second stage on Falcon 9 Flight 19 in June 2015.

Launch schedule history

SES announced[10] in February 2015 that it would provide the payload on the first launch of the revised-design Falcon 9 Full Thrust (also called Falcon 9 v1.2 [11]). At the time, SES expected its SES-9 geostationary communications satellite would launch by September 2015.[12] SES kept the decision despite the loss of the launch vehicle and payload of another SpaceX mission in June 2015, but postponed the launch until late 2015.[13]

On 16 October 2015, after considering all options, SpaceX announced a change: Orbcomm's 11 OG2 satellites would be the payload on the return-to-flight launch of the redesigned Falcon 9 instead of SES-9.[12] The Orbcomm payload with its lower orbit would allow SpaceX to test relighting the second-stage engine, a capability required to successfully put the heavier SES-9 on a geostationary orbit.[12] The launch was delayed to mid-December or later, while SES-9 was scheduled to follow within a few weeks.[12]

A required pre-launch static-fire test was initially scheduled for 16 December 2015, but a few issues emerged with the new processes required for the colder propellants for the launch vehicle and the related ground support equipment. The test was successfully carried out on 18 December 2015, which resulted in a launch delay of one day to 19 December 2015 (local time).[14] The launch was subsequently delayed an additional day after statistical analysis indicated a somewhat higher probability of recovering the booster on the later date.[15]

New launch vehicle

First stage of Falcon 9 flight 20 landing on a ground pad in December 2015

The Falcon 9 Full Thrust launch vehicle used on flight 20 had a number of significant modifications from the previous Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle. These included:[13]

Launch and on-orbit test

Long-exposure of launch (left) and landing (right) during the flight.

Flight 20 was launched on 22 December 2015 at 01:29 UTC (21 December, 8:29 pm local time).

Second stage re-ignition

Following successful launch and deployment of the OG2 satellites, the Merlin Vacuum (1D) second-stage engine successfully re-ignited, demonstrating its capability to launch SES-9 into geostationary transfer orbit. The engine burn de-orbited the second stage as planned for a destructive re-entry, preventing it from becoming space debris.[17]


Falcon 9 Flight 20 carried 11 Orbcomm-OG2 second-generation satellites,[12] which will provide enhanced ORBCOMM messaging capabilities, increased data capacity, and automatic identification systems (AIS) service.[18] All 11 satellites were successfully deployed by the Falcon 9 second stage, beginning approximately 14 minutes after takeoff. All 11 satellites successfully checked in with ground control stations.[2]

The satellites were placed by the launch vehicle "within a fraction of a degree in inclination and 5 km (3.1 mi) in altitude of the intended orbit, "and by 9 January 2016, were in the middle of on-orbit testing, while executing propulsion maneuvers that had spread the 11 satellites over a 6,400 km (4,000 mi) orbital arc.[19] Initial ORBCOMM customer message traffic began to be tested by late January 2016.[20]

Satflare reported in February 2016 that one of the 11 flight 2 satellites will reenter Earth's atmosphere in late-February 2016.[21]

The satellite manufacturer, Sierra Nevada Corporation, completed checkout work and handed all 11 satellites off to ORBCOMM in early March 2016.[22][23]

Post-mission landing

Further information: SpaceX reusable launch system development program

SpaceX performed a controlled-descent test on the rocket's first stage — the eighth propulsive return test of the series. For the first time, SpaceX was able to vertically land and successfully recover the first stage.[24] Earlier tests had proven the high-altitude deceleration and atmospheric re-entry portions of the test protocol, but no landing attempt had previously been successful, including two attempts earlier in 2015 to land a first stage on a floating landing platform.[25] The entire controlled-descent through the atmosphere and landing attempt is an arrangement that is unusual for other launch vehicles.[26]

The flight test was planned for the twentieth Falcon 9 launch, even after the manifested payload was switched from SES-9 to the 11-satellite Orbcomm OG-2 payload.[27] The test was scheduled for and successfully carried out on 21 December 2015, when the first stage landed intact at Landing Zone 1.[3][25]

SpaceX decided not to fly the B1019 again.[28] Rather, the rocket was moved a few miles north to Launch Pad 39A, recently refurbished by SpaceX at the adjacent Kennedy Space Center, to conduct a static fire test. This test aimed to assess the health of the recovered booster and the capability of this rocket design to fly repeatedly in the future.[29][25] The historic booster was eventually displayed outside SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Evaluation of the recovered first stage

Falcon 9 used first stage engine

On 31 December 2015, SpaceX announced that no damage had been found on the stage and that it was ready to perform a static fire again.[30][31] SpaceX had initially moved the booster to their hangar at LC-39A, but they moved the stage to SLC-40 — the pad from which it was launched — on 12 January 2016.[32] On 15 January 2016, SpaceX conducted the static fire test on the recovered booster, obtaining good overall results except for one of the outer engines experiencing thrust fluctuations.[29] Elon Musk reported that this may have been due to debris ingestion.[33][34]

In February 2016, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell indicated that some unspecified modifications to the stage design would occur as a result of the booster's post-flight evaluation and static fire.[35]


In August 2016, the returned first stage was put on permanent display on a stand outside SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.[36]

Live coverage

SpaceX live coverage of the launch and landing included cheering crowds and tours of the SpaceX manufacturing and launch facilities.[37] The Atlantic technology editor Robinson Meyer called the scripted broadcast "a way of treating a rocket launch not like a dry engineering procedure, but like some combination of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Super Bowl".[37] Upon the unprecedented first stage landing, a SpaceX engineer announced "The Falcon has landed",[38][39] reminding audiences of the first Apollo landing.

See also


  1. ^ "2015 U.S. Space Launch Manifest". americaspace.com. AmericaSpace. 21 December 2015. Retrieved 21 December 2015.
  2. ^ a b Jeff Foust (21 December 2015). "Falcon 9 Launches Orbcomm Satellites, Lands First Stage". SpaceNews. Retrieved 22 December 2015. the first time SpaceX had successfully landed the rocket's first stage.
  3. ^ a b Stephen Clark (10 December 2015). "SpaceX eyes December 19 for first launch since June 2015". Retrieved 10 December 2015.
  4. ^ "SpaceX Shooting for a December 19 Falcon Return-to-flight Launch". SpaceNews. 10 December 2015. Retrieved 10 December 2015.
  5. ^ Wagstaff, Keith; Coldewey, Devin (22 December 2015). "SpaceX Makes History: Falcon 9 Launches, Lands Vertically". NBC News. Retrieved 28 December 2015.
  6. ^ Kramer, Miriam (12 January 2015). "SpaceX's Elon Musk Says Rocket Landing Test Ran Out of Hydraulic Fluid". SPACE.com. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
  7. ^ Guy Norris (16 April 2015). "SpaceX Checks Throttle Valve After Flawed Falcon 9 Recovery Attempt".
  8. ^ "In historic first, SpaceX lands first reusable rocket". Al Jazeera. 22 December 2015. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  9. ^ Simberg, Rand (7 February 2012). "Elon Musk on SpaceX's Reusable Rocket Plans". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  10. ^ Clark, Stephen (20 February 2015). "SES signs up for launch with more powerful Falcon 9 engines". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  11. ^ Svitak, Amy (17 March 2015). "SpaceX's New Spin on Falcon 9". Aviation Week. Retrieved 24 October 2015.
  12. ^ a b c d e de Selding, Peter B. (16 October 2015). "SpaceX Changes its Falcon 9 Return-to-flight Plans". SpaceNews. Retrieved 16 October 2015.
  13. ^ a b Foust, Jeff (15 September 2015). "SES Betting on SpaceX, Falcon 9 Upgrade as Debut Approaches". SpaceNews. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  14. ^ "No December 19 launch for SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.2". SpaceFlight Insider. 16 December 2015. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  15. ^ "SpaceX Now Planning Monday Launch and Landing". SpaceNews. 19 December 2015. Retrieved 22 December 2015.
  16. ^ Elon Musk [@elonmusk] (24 November 2015). "@TobiasVdb The F9 booster can reach low orbit as a single stage if not carrying the upper stage and a heavy satellite" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  17. ^ Clark, Stephen. "Round-trip rocket flight gives SpaceX a trifecta of successes". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 22 December 2015.
  18. ^ Messier, Doug (27 December 2012). "Orbcomm, SpaceX Reach New Launch Agreement on OG2 Satellite Launch". Parabolic Arc. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
  19. ^ OG2 Mission 2 Launch Update ORBCOMM, 8 January 2016, accessed 10 January 2016
  20. ^ "OG2 Update: Satellite Successfully Processes Customer Message Traffic". 28 January 2016. Archived from the original on 4 February 2016. Retrieved 6 February 2016. In-orbit testing continues to progress well. Yesterday, we turned on one of our OG2 satellites and started successfully processing customer message traffic. We will continue testing this single satellite for the next several days. We expect to move forward with multi-satellite testing next week.
  21. ^ "ONLINE SATELLITE AND FLARE TRACKING". Satflare. 24 February 2015. Archived from the original on 24 February 2016. Retrieved 24 February 2016. WARNING: This object is expected to decay around Thursday, 25/02/2016 UTC
  22. ^ "SNC handover 11 OG2 satellites following in-orbit checkouts". 7 March 2016.
  23. ^ Sierra Nevada: We have handed to Orbcomm operational control of all 11 OG2 sats launched in December, Peter B. De Selding of SpaceNews, 6 March 2016]
  24. ^ "SpaceX ORBCOMM-2 Mission" (PDF). SpaceX. 21 December 2015. Retrieved 21 December 2015. This mission also marks SpaceX's return-to-flight as well as its first attempt to land a first stage on land. The landing of the first stage is a secondary test objective.
  25. ^ a b c Gebhardt, Chris (31 December 2015). "Year In Review, Part 4: SpaceX and Orbital ATK recover and succeed in 2015". NASASpaceFlight.com. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  26. ^ "SpaceX wants to land next booster at Cape Canaveral". Florida Today. 1 December 2015. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  27. ^ SpaceX preparing for Static Fire test on first Full Thrust Falcon 9 First Stage, 24 October 2015, accessed 26 October 2015
  28. ^ O'Kane, Sean (21 December 2015). "SpaceX's "reusable" Falcon 9 rocket won't fly again, Elon Musk says". The Verge. Retrieved 23 December 2015.
  29. ^ a b "Returned falcon 9 booster fires up for static fire test". Spaceflight 101.com. 15 January 2016. Retrieved 18 January 2016.
  30. ^ "SpaceX Reports No Damage to Falcon 9 First Stage After Landing". 3 January 2016. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  31. ^ Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral. No damage found, ready to fire again. Elon Musk, via Twitter, 31 December 2015, accessed 2 January 2016
  32. ^ Dean, James (13 January 2016). "SpaceX poised to test-fire landed Falcon rocket's engines". Florida Today. Retrieved 14 January 2016.
  33. ^ "SpaceX Tests Recovered Falcon 9 Stage and Prepares for Next Launch". 15 January 2016. Retrieved 15 January 2016.
  34. ^ Falcon 9 booster fires again at Cape Canaveral Spaceflight Now, 16 January 2016, accessed 18 January 2016
  35. ^ Foust, Jeff (4 February 2014). "SpaceX seeks to accelerate Falcon 9 production and launch rates this year". SpaceNews. Retrieved 6 February 2016. The latest changes, [Shotwell] said, came after a static fire test of the first stage January 15 at Cape Canaveral. "We fired it up, and actually learned something about the rocket", she said, without elaborating on what the company learned. "We're going to make some mods based on what we saw on that stage landing and firing".
  36. ^ "SpaceX puts historic flown rocket on permanent display". Spaceflight Now. 20 August 2016. Retrieved 8 April 2017.
  37. ^ a b Robinson Meyer (23 December 2015). "When a Rocket Launch Is a Cultural Event: SpaceX's online broadcast brought a different tone to space exploration". The Atlantic. Retrieved 24 December 2015.
  38. ^ SpaceX (12 January 2016). ""The Falcon has landed" – Recap of Falcon 9 launch and landing". Youtube.
  39. ^ TMRO (2 January 2016). ""LZ-1, The Falcon Has Landed" – 9.01". Youtube.