On Sunday evening, SpaceX will attempt a rocket landing unlike anything they have tried before. Musk just tweeted the exciting news earlier this morning:
Currently looking good for a Sunday night (~8pm local) attempted orbital launch and rocket landing at Cape Canaveral
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 19, 2015
On Sunday evening around 8 pm, a 229.6-foot Falcon 9 rocket will lift off out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
About 10 minutes after lift off, part of the rocket, called the first stage or booster, will separate from the spacecraft, and that’s when the really exciting stuff happens.
Using GPS tracking, the first stage will fly back to its launch site at Cape Canaveral for an epic landing attempt on land. Musk had been hinting about this exciting new development for SpaceX’s rockets over the last few weeks:
But now it’s official.
What makes this potential landing so exciting is that it will be first time SpaceX will try to retrieve a first stage Falcon 9 for reuse on land. (The other rocket landing attempts this year have all been on a droneship in the ocean.)
If Sunday’s attempt is anything like the rocket landings that SpaceX performed in 2013 with its Grasshopper rocket, which was about 50 feet shorter with a simpler design than the Falcon 9, then this will certainly be a sight to see.
Five years ago, a landing attempt of a rocket of this size and design was unheard of. But SpaceX, founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, is paving the way for a new era of spaceflight, which runs on reusable rockets — rockets that can fly more than once.
And the company has gone to great lengths to build the foundations for a future of cheap space travel.
“A jumbo jet costs about the same as one of our Falcon 9 rockets, but airlines don’t junk a plane after a one-way trip from LA to New York,” SpaceX stated in a press release last June. “So, what if we could … [be] landing rockets gently and precisely on land? Refurbishment time and cost would be dramatically reduced.”
Everything has led up to this moment
Over the last few years, SpaceX has slowly been working toward what it will be attempting on Saturday.
In 2013, the company hit a major milestone by successfully performing a soft landing in the ocean. A soft landing is where the return rocket fires its engines during descent to slow down to near-zero speed for a gentle touch down.
While the soft ocean landings were a success, SpaceX didn’t retrieve any of those rockets for reuse — mostly because, after landing, the 14-story-tall, 67,000-pound rocket would tip over and suffer significant damage.
Then, in January and April of this year, SpaceX tried its first and second Falcon 9 rocket landing on a solid surface, atop an autonomous drone ship floating in the Atlantic, miles off the Florida coastline. This required SpaceX to be more precise in where the rocket touched down.
However, both times SpaceX got the rocket to the drone ship, so it reached the target. This demonstrated that SpaceX can hit a bulls-eye mark from over 60 miles up.
Why land trumps drone ship
Now, for the first time, SpaceX is going to return its rocket to its launch site, instead of to the drone ship. And SpaceX has suggested that a land-based rocket landing attempt is actually easier than trying to set the rocket down on a floating drone ship.
Last year, SpaceX explained the disadvantages of the drone ship:
“The landing site is limited in size and not entirely stationary,” SpaceX stated a news release last December, before its first landing attempt on the drone ship. “It is not actually anchored, so finding the bulls-eye becomes particularly tricky.”
Though the latest attempts on drone ships didn’t result in reuse, they were necessary so that SpaceX could prove that it can guide its rockets to a precise target to within 10 meters. And now, it has paid off.
SpaceX has earned the clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration that they needed to attempt a rocket landing on land.
So far, SpaceX has never recovered a rocket for reuse. But if everything goes according to plan this Saturday and the rocket lands softly, it would be a game changer.
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