Bulgaria’s first communications satellite launched into orbit

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    Launching into a sun-splashed summertime afternoon sky, a previously-flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket climbed into orbit from Florida’s east coast Friday with a U.S.-built, Bulgarian-owned television broadcasting satellite.

    In a secondary objective, the Falcon 9’s first stage booster descended back to Earth and slowed down for a jarring touchdown on SpaceX’s drone ship holding position several hundred miles east of Cape Canaveral.

    The successful launch and landing is the first of two back-to-back Falcon 9 launches planned by SpaceX. A separate launch team is preparing a Falcon 9 rocket for liftoff Sunday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

    Running one hour late to conduct additional ground system verifications, the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) two-stage rocket lit its nine Merlin 1D main engines, passed a nearly instantaneous automated readiness check, and climbed away from launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:10 p.m. EDT (1910 GMT).

    Navigating east from Florida’s Space Coast, the Falcon 9 rocket arced over the Atlantic Ocean on 1.7 million pounds of thrust, soaring to an altitude of more than 44 miles (70 kilometers) before the booster’s first stage shut down and fell away.

    Pushers ensured a clean separation of the Falcon 9’s first and second stage, and the booster reignited a subset of its engines for a re-entry braking burn, then three of its Merlin powerplants fired on final descent to slow down for landing on SpaceX’s drone ship, dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You.”

    Four landing legs extended from the base of the booster just before touchdown. A live video feed from the landing barge cut out during landing, but the first stage was visible on the ship with an apparent lean when video resumed.

    Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, tweeted that the Falcon 9’s first stage endured its highest-ever re-entry force and heat on Friday’s descent. The Falcon 9 rocket aimed to heave the 8,150-pound (3,700-kilogram) BulgariaSat 1 satellite into a supersynchronous transfer orbit ranging more than 37,000 miles (60,000 kilometers) from Earth.

    The fuel needed to loft BulgariaSat 1 into such a high orbit left less propellant in the first stage’s tanks for braking maneuvers on descent.

    “Good chance rocket booster doesn’t make it back,” Musk tweeted before the launch.

    It turns out the first stage survived the landing, the 12th time SpaceX has recovered one of its rockets intact in 17 tries. The last eight booster landing attempts have been successful over the last year, including recoveries at sea and on land.

    “Rocket is extra toasty and hit the deck hard (used almost all of the emergency crush core), but otherwise good,” Musk tweeted after Friday’s landing.