SpaceX has announced its next major challenge: landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on an "autonomous spaceport drone ship" in the Atlantic Ocean. The barge in question (as everyone but Elon Musk is calling it) measures just 300 feet by 100 feet across, and the company claims the odds of successfully landing on it are no better than 50 percent, comparing the feat to "[balancing] a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm."
The barge landing is a crucial step in the journey to cheap spaceflight
However, if the landing is successful it’ll be a significant milestone in the company’s quest to get into space for less. One of the major financial headaches in space travel is that the multi-stage rockets used to punch out of the Earth’s gravity are single-use only. If Musk and his company can retrieve even part of theirs intact, then it’ll save millions on future flights. This is an early test, though, and so the landing will be attempted only for the first of the Falcon 9's two rocket stages.
The mission is scheduled for this Friday according to a report from Popular Mechanics, with Falcon 9 heading back to Earth after sending an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft into orbit. To land, the Falcon 9 will deploy its "X-wings:" a set of four hypersonic grid fins that will extend on reentry and move independently to stabilize the 14-story-tall, 70-feet wide rocket. While previous Falcon 9 re-entries were aiming for an accuracy of within 10 kilometers of their optimal landing site, SpaceX says this particular mission is targeting a landing accuracy of within 10 meters.
This year has been a difficult one for commercial spaceflight. In August, a developmental version of SpaceX's own Falcon 9 exploded, and then on October 28th, Orbital Science's Antares rocket also failed. This was followed just three days later by the destruction of Virgin Galactic's experimental SpaceShipTwo, an incident the test pilot did not survive. Thankfully for SpaceX, the stakes for the Falcon 9's barge-landing aren't quite so high, but here's hoping they manage to come down gently — and without a splash — to tee us up for a successful 2015.
Update: SpaceX is delaying the mission until early January due to an "undisclosed technical issue," reports Reuters. A first test of the Falcon 9's engines reportedly failed, with SpaceX spokesperson John Taylor commenting: "The data suggests we could push forward without a second attempt, but out of an abundance of caution, we are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch."
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