SpaceX hit a milestone in space exploration Sunday as it launched its most powerful rocket yet from California.
The unmanned nine-engine Falcon 9, which carried a small Canadian weather satellite called Cassiope, is an experiment in reusing rocket parts after they have fallen back to Earth. As the BBC reports:
"Normally, this initial segment of a rocket falls back to Earth after burning out and is destroyed. But the company is endeavouring to develop a system that would allow it to recover and recycle these stages, further reducing the cost of launching a Falcon vehicle. ...
"During Sunday's mission, three first-stage engines were commanded to reignite, to see if they could bring the rocket segment down through the atmosphere intact. A fourth engine was then ignited to try to slow the stage still further just before it touched the water."
A Falcon 9 launch currently has a $56.5 million price tag.
SpaceX's principal rival, Orbital Sciences, also had a good day Sunday: Its unmanned spacecraft docked at the International Space Station, where it will remain for a few weeks. It's unloading 1,500 pounds of supplies and will be filled with trash before "departing for a destructive re-entry" over the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, NASA is pursuing space-ready innovations using 3-D printing.