A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket finally broke a scrub streak Monday, vaulting an Earth observation satellite into skies so clear that the entire process from launch to landing back at Cape Canaveral was easily visible to watchers along the coast.
Two minutes after the 6:11 p.m. EST liftoff from Launch Complex 40, the 230-foot rocket’s first stage separated just downrange from the Cape. Thanks to the altitude and sun’s last rays over the horizon, ice crystals formed by the Merlin engines’ exhaust plumes were illuminated and formed what’s informally known as the “jellyfish effect.”
After separation, the 156-foot booster plummeted back toward Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Its engine burns to slow down were easily visible to the naked eye, but those with binoculars or telephoto camera lenses could follow the hardware all the way down to Landing Zone 1.
Sonic booms generated along the way were slightly muted compared to previous landings. A meter at nearby Kennedy Space Center recorded 91 decibels.
Secured inside Falcon 9’s payload fairing was COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation, or CSG-2. The satellite operated by the Italian Space Agency will look back at Earth to gather data on activities for government and commercial purposes.
Four previous attempts were scrubbed due to poor weather around the Cape, but conditions improved for a Sunday evening attempt. Just as Falcon 9 was fueling, however, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship identified by the Coast Guard as Harmony of the Seas entered the rocket’s safety exclusion zone and was unable to exit in time. Launch engineers scrubbed just minutes before the planned liftoff.
“The Coast Guard is actively investigating Sunday’s cruise ship incursion and postponement of the SpaceX launch,” the Coast Guard said in a statement to FLORIDA TODAY. “Our primary concern is the safety of mariners at sea, and we will continue to work with our federal, state and local port partners to ensure safe and navigable waterways.”
The Coast Guard is investigating the incident.
With CSG-2 finally off the schedule, SpaceX can focus on its next mission: the 37th launch for the company’s Starlink internet constellation. Another Falcon 9 rocket is slated to fly from KSC’s pad 39A at 1:56 p.m. EST Tuesday, Feb. 1, which marks a rapid turnaround of less than a day.
That rocket’s first stage will target a drone ship landing.