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SpaceX returns to space and nails re-entry landing

Elon Musk's rocket company successfully launches 10 satellites aboard a Falcon 9 and brings the rocket back for a smooth landing.

SpaceX returns to space.
SpaceX returns to space.
Eric Mack/CNET (video screenshot)

After being involuntarily grounded for over four months, SpaceX returned to space Saturday and nailed the rocket's re-entry landing on a drone ship in the Pacific.

Elon Musk's spaceflight company successfully started its mission to carry 10 satellites for wireless company Iridium into low-Earth orbit aboard one of its Falcon 9 rockets, which lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

About 10 minutes after launch, the first stage of the rocket successfully returned and landed on a drone ship called "Just Read the Instructions." Video of the landing from a SpaceX webcast captured the entire descent, in which the Falcon 9 touched down nearly dead center on its landing pad target.

Typically, the live video feed cuts out because of turbulence from the landing, but it stayed with the descent on Saturday, offering a rare glimpse of the entire sequence.

SpaceX is part of a new breed of private-sector companies elbowing in on activities outside Earth's atmosphere, a realm that for more than a half-century has been dominated by government-led projects. Another is Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin, which like SpaceX has launched and landed its own rockets. Meanwhile, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has its eyes on creating a market for space tourism.

The mission comes a little over a week after the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorized SpaceX's Commercial Space Transportation License. That license was suspended last September after a sudden and spectacular explosion of a Falcon 9 during a prelaunch test at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The view of the drone ship's landing pad from the Falcon 9, seconds before touchdown.

The view of the drone ship's landing pad from the Falcon 9, seconds before touchdown.

Eric Mack/CNET (video screenshot)

The rocket was destroyed along with a satellite Facebook had hoped to use to beam broadband internet to rural Africa.

The internet speculated wildly on possible causes for the explosion, pointing fingers at everything from sabotage to aliens.

In the end, though, an investigation team involving the FAA , the Air Force, NASA, the National Transportation Safety Board, SpaceX and industry experts concluded that "the failure was likely due to the accumulation of oxygen between the COPV liner and overwrap in a void or a buckle in the liner, leading to ignition and the subsequent failure of the COPV," or composite overwrapped pressure vessels, according to a statement earlier this month from SpaceX.

Translation: Something went wrong in the Falcon 9's complex fuel systems.

Saturday's launch was originally set for about a week earlier in the month, but that date was pushed back due to weather and conflicts with other activities at Vandenberg.

The new Iridium satellites that SpaceX carried are part of Iridium's initiative to upgrade its current constellation of dozens of satellites.

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