Spaceflight Insider

Jason-3 satellite launched to orbit successfully on Falcon 9, booster landing unsuccessful

Jason-3 Launch

Jason-3 launches into a foggy sky. While the launch went extremely well, with the payload successfully delivered to orbit. However, the experimental first stage booster landing was not as successful. It hit hard and broke one of its landing legs. (Click for full view.) Photo Credit: NASA

An ocean exploring satellite called Jason-3 was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 10:42 a.m. PST (18:42 GMT) on Sunday, Jan. 17, from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 4 in an effort to understand the changing sea level, tides, and also help with forecast models for hurricanes and El Niño.

The launch of the Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) rocket with Jason-3 was the last planned for the v1.1 version of the Falcon 9. This was only the second time that Space Launch Complex 4 East in California has supported a SpaceX launch.

This was the second flight of the Falcon 9 since the June 28, 2015, loss of a Falcon 9 with the CRS-7 Dragon that it carried. An upgraded full-thrust Falcon 9 was launched in December. This should be the configuration of the launch vehicle that will be used on future missions.

Jason 3 spacecraft in preparation for launch atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base photo credit NOAA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Jason-3 undergoing thermal testing which recreates conditions that the satellite will encounter in space. Photo Credit: Rémy Decourt / Futura-Sciences

The Jason-3 satellite is a joint effort between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the European EUMETSAT and the French CNES organizations. it was placed in an orbit that will allow it to cover about 90 percent of the world’s oceans and repeats its ground track every 9.9156 days.

The satellite is equipped with a radar altimeter as well as the Advanced Microwave Radiometer (AMR), a NASA-developed instrument, a GPS receiver, a Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), and the French Doppler Orbitography and Radiopositioning Integrated by Satellite (DORIS). These instruments are used to precisely determine the orbit in order to accurately measure sea-level changes. The height must be known to within 0.4 inches (one centimeter).

The launch had a number of delays including those due to the launch failure this past June. Thomas Burns, deputy assistant administrator for systems in the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Systems organization of NOAA, said this has not impacted the Jason-3 mission at all and that the Jason-2 satellite currently in orbit is running well.

Burns said the spacecraft was vital in a number of ways, including long-term climate research, hurricane intensity, weather forecasting and ocean currents.

Alan Buis, a media relations specialist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the NASA portion of the mission, said the Jason series spacecraft help forecast the current El Niño and also gathers information regarding sea-level rise.

“The rate of sea-level rise is an important indicator of climate change happening around the world,” Laury Miller, NOAA’s Jason-3 program scientist and chief of NOAA’s Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry, said in a press release.

According to the press release, since the first mission of this type launched in 1992, spacecraft have measured an average sea-level rise of about 3 millimeters every year—a total of 70 millimeters (2.8 inches) over 23 years.

SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base with NOAA Jason-3 mission. Photo Credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceX had a 30-second window in which to get the Jason-3 spacecraft off of the pad and on its way to orbit. Photo Credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

The launch of the booster took place at the beginning of a 30-second window with weather forecasted to have a 100 percent chance of favorable launch conditions—a rarity in the launch business. While launch conditions could not have been better, viewing conditions simply could not have been worse. An incredibly dense blanket of fog rolled in that almost totally obscured the launch.

After firing its nine first-stage Merlin 1D engines for about two-and-a-half minutes, the first and second stages separated as planned.

Flight 22 Booster Landing

“At least the pieces were bigger this time!” Elon Musk tweeted a few hours after the landing attempt. Musk said that the touchdown speed was OK, but a leg lockout didn’t latch, so it tipped over after landing. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The second stage’s single Merlin 1D vacuum engine fired a few seconds later and the stage/spacecraft continued on its trajectory to orbit. The 17.1-foot (5.2-meter) wide payload fairing jettisoned and fell away from the rocket just over 3 minutes into the flight, revealing the Jason-3 spacecraft to the harsh vacuum of space.

About 9 minutes after liftoff, the second stage engine cut off as planned as the satellite-booster duo entered a temporary parking orbit before firing again for about 12 seconds about 55 minutes after the booster had left the pad. This allowed the second stage to reach a target orbit of some 820 miles (1,320 kilometers) by 810 miles (1,305 kilometers) with an inclination of 66 degrees. The spacecraft separated from the second stage less than a minute after engine cutoff.

Meanwhile, after stage separation, the first stage began to orient itself properly for a series of boost burns that placed it on a trajectory towards a position down-range.

The Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) called Just Read The Instructions waited for SpaceX’s third attempt at landing a rocket on an ocean-going platform.

The live feed of the landing at the ASDS platform cut out early due to satellite issues, but word soon came that the landing was not successful.

SpaceX initially tweeted that a landing leg may have broke due to a hard touchdown. However, after reviewing the data, the company reported the stage landed softly, but one of the legs didn’t “lock” into place causing it to tip over. The booster was within 4 feet (1.3 meters) of the ASDS’s center.

Musk said on Instagram, with a video of the touchdown, that the root cause may have been ice buildup due to condensation from heavy fog at liftoff.

SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket ocean landing attempt during NOAA Jason-3 launch SpaceX photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The third landing ocean landing attempt came much closer to meeting success than the two prior attempts. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Barge landings are an important part in SpaceX’s goal of making an economically-reusable launch vehicle. For mission profiles requiring a higher velocity at stage separation or for the core stage of the future Falcon Heavy, an ASDS will be needed as the fuel requirement for boosting back to the launch site would be too much. Therefore, SpaceX appears to be returning to carrying out landings on ocean-based platforms. This, however, is far more difficult than ground landings as the pitching sea greatly reduces stability—something demonstrated today.

This attempt follows last month’s first successful ground landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1. The 156-foot first stage booster that carried out that successful landing was taken to the company’s hangar at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and partially inspected. It was later taken back to Launch Complex 40 and hoisted upright via a crane. On Jan. 15, a static fire was conducted.

“Data looks good overall,” Musk said in a tweet, but noted Engine No. 9—one of the outer engines—showed thrust fluctuations.

He said that there may have been some debris ingestion, but the engine data looks OK and that they would borescope later that night. There has been no word on how that inspection went.

SpaceX does not intend to refly the first recovered booster. However, inspections and the static fire will be used to determine how well the stage fared during the descent back to Terra firma and how easy or hard it will be to return a flown stage to flight.

The Jason-3 spacecraft will fly in tandem for six months with Jason-2, which was launched in 2008. Jason-2 had a planned lifespan of five years and is now in its seventh year of operation. According to the Pasadena Star-News, this is being done to help calibrate the new spacecraft to ensure accurate data. Afterword, Jason-2 will be moved into a different orbit to cover more ground.

“Jason-3 is a prime example of how our nation leverages NASA’s expertise in space and scientific exploration to help address critical global challenges in collaboration with NOAA and our international partners,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The measurements from Jason-3 will advance our efforts to understand Earth as an integrated system by increasing our knowledge of sea level changes and the ocean’s roles in climate.”

Video courtesy of NASA Kennedy


Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

Reader Comments

In the article it is not clear whether the first stage landing was unsuccessful due to a “leg lockout didn’t latch”, or “Musk stated that a landing leg broke on touchdown.” There is a vast difference between the two! A non-latching leg would cause a landing failure even at the Cape and is less acceptable (to me anyway) than a leg failure on a pitching deck.

Read more at, ” the leg

I think the opposite is the case at least on what is more or less acceptable. The locking mechanism can be fixed/re-designed however 10-15 foot waves in the ocean are pretty common. So you would like a situation where the rolling of the deck had little or no impact in landing failure, as future missions would like to land in similar conditions successfully given a successful lockout of the leg.

In any case the F9 launches going forward will have an upgraded leg design as this was already upgraded between v1.1 and FT. I am also sure the lockout mechanism will be looked at carefully on the new legs to verify operation. Looking forward to SES-9 where the new legs get their first sea trials.

I’m curious why there hasn’t been any video of the actual landing released yet. Surely there would be recordings even if the satelite link from the drone ship broke off prior to landing.

WOW! Thanks Jason. Very interesting. More lessons to be learned.

Yes they were. Seems like the leg failed to lock in position. Quick redesign and next one’s a cinch.

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