Environment & Science

SpaceX attempts difficult, history making landing

The landing pad for SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. It is a drone ship that is autonomously propelled by thrusters. It will not be anchored during the landing.
The landing pad for SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. It is a drone ship that is autonomously propelled by thrusters. It will not be anchored during the landing.
SpaceX

Listen to story

00:57
Download this story 0MB

Early Tuesday, Hawthorne based SpaceX will attempt to land a 14 story tall rocket on a platform floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

If it succeeds, the company will make history by becoming the first ever to manage such a feat.

It would also pave the way for reusable rockets, a development that could theoretically reduce the cost of space travel.

The launch will be broadcast live starting at 3am pacific time.

"What SpaceX is attempting to do is unique in the history of space flight and if accomplished will be a very significant technical achievement," said Bill Claybaugh of the private space consultant group Strategic Space Solutions, LLC.

Currently, rockets launch into the sky then discard their first stage engines which fall into the ocean and sink, taking millions of dollars of equipment with them.

SpaceX has been working on technology to land and reuse these rockets, but the odds of pulling it off Tuesday aren't great. The company puts the chances of success as about 50%.

Around 3:20 am PT, SpaceX will launch its 5th resupply mission to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

About ten minutes later, Space X's Falcon 9 rocket will come back to Earth at a blistering speed of about 2,900 mph.

Using adjustable fins and a set of powerful engines, the rocket will slow down and steer toward a 300 by 170 foot platform in the ocean about 200 miles from Jacksonville, FL.

It'll reach about 4.5 mph, deploy landing legs, and if all goes well, touch down in one piece.

In a press statement released last month, the company likened this task to "trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm."

If it fails, the rocket will be ruined. Still, the company says it will learn from the event either way and vows to keep testing this technology on future resupply missions.

Creating reusable rockets has been a goal of SpaceX founder Elon Musk since day one, said Max Vozoff, a consultant with MV2Space, a firm that advices space companies.

"So this is something he's had in his sights to the chagrin of his engineers to some extent," Vozoff noted, pointing out that it's both easier and cheaper in the short term to build disposable rockets.

The company has tested this vertical landing technique with other rockets in the past, but none of those reached the height and speed of Tuesday's launch.

(A video showing a vertical launch and landing of a SpaceX rocket.)

Twice last year, SpaceX managed to do a vertical soft landing above the ocean, but this next attempt will need to be much more precise.

It will be aiming for an autonomous drone ship that is roughly the size of a football field. That may seem large but for a rocket descending from space it's still a tiny target, said Claybaugh.

If the test is a success, it will be the latest step in the effort to create reusable rockets.

At the moment this technology is more expensive than traditional disposable rockets, but if a rocket is reused multiple times the cost per use would theoretically come down.

Still, even a reusable rocket needs to be transported from a landing pad, examined, refurbished and redeployed.

"Are all of those costs low enough that after you pay all of that the result is a rocket that is cheaper than the existing expendable version?" asked Bill Claybaugh.

He says most companies doing the math have determined that it's not worth it in the long run, but SpaceX is hoping to prove them all wrong.