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SpaceX launched Qatar World Cup match balls on Falcon 9 first stage

December 13, 2022

— As has almost become routine, a recent SpaceX Falcon 9 launch included the rocket's first stage landing back on Earth. What differed this time around is that the touchdown could also be described as scoring a World Cup GOOOOAAAALLLL!

Qatar Airways partnered with SpaceX to give two FIFA World Cup official match balls the ultimate kick — all the way to outer space. The soccer balls (or footballs, as they are called everywhere else but in the U.S.) reached 76 miles (123 km) above Earth while packed inside the Falcon 9 first stage.

The white, blue, red and yellow balls then descended with the booster back to a SpaceX droneship, where they completed the first leg of their 800-mile (1,300-km) trip. The balls were then flown by Qatar Airways to Hamad International Airport, where they were handed off to World Cup officials.

"A legendary journey for a legendary tournament, from space to kick off," Qatar Airways stated in a video revealing the feat.

A legendary journey for a legendary tournament. Enlarge video in new window. (Qatar Airways)

The match balls, which were made by Adidas for the World Cup, are the first to use sustainable water-based glues and inks. Their name, "Al Rihla," means "the journey" or "the excursion" in Arabic. (A different set of metallic gold, maroon, burgundy and red match balls, called "Al Hilm" or "the dream," are being used in the semifinals and finals being played this week.)

The balls' flight by SpaceX was, in part, a promotion for the company's Starlink satellite internet service. An associated website invited World Cup attendees to visit the Starlink office in Doha.

"Thanks to the FIFA World Cup and Qatar Airways for entrusting SpaceX and the Starlink team to fly two World Cup balls to space and back!" SpaceX officials wrote on Twitter.

The match balls were the first known example of SpaceX using its Falcon 9's first stage to fly a commercial payload on a suborbital flight. They are not, however, the first soccer balls to be flown into space, let alone World Cup match balls.

In 2018, Russian cosmonauts flew an Adidas "Telstar 18" ball to the International Space Station (ISS) before it was used for the kickoff of the World Cup in Moscow. The ball, which was autographed by the crew aboard the orbiting outpost, traveled more than 31 million miles (50 million km) during its 74 days in space.

Another soccer ball left on the station was used by the astronauts and cosmonauts to stage their own game in celebration of the tournament on the ground.

A year later, SpaceX launched several Adidas soccer balls aboard a NASA-contracted Dragon cargo spacecraft for study in the ISS National Laboratory. The tests were aimed at gaining a better understanding of the balls' flight characteristics beyond what is possible in an Earth-based wind tunnel. The results were expected to enable more design freedom for panel shape and texture.

Among other examples throughout the years, a soccer ball that was recovered among the debris from the ill-fated launch of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 was flown to the International Space Station 31 years later in 2017. The ball was flown as a tribute to the fallen astronauts and to the students for whom its original flight was intended.


Two 2022 World Cup match balls were flown to space and back on a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage. (Qatar Airways)

After landing from space, the World Cup balls were flown by Qatar Airways to Doha for their hand off to FIFA officials. (Qatar Airways)

The World Cup match balls may be the first commercial items flown on a Falcon 9 first stage like the one shown landing here. (SpaceX)

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