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SpaceX postpones its mission to land a rocket on a barge at sea

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The rocket had a 50-50 chance of making it

SpaceX has delayed its planned launch of an uncrewed Falcon 9 rocket on a barge out at sea, scheduled for 6:20AM ET today. The goal was to find out if SpaceX can safely conserve a rocket for future flights. The private space travel company explained its decision to postpone the launch on its mission liveblog. "During the terminal count engineers observed drift on one of the two thrust vector actuators on the second stage that would likely have caused an automatic abort. Engineers called a hold in order to take a closer look." SpaceX is planning to try the launch against on January 9th, at 5:09AM ET.

The rocket landing was originally planned for December, but a problem with a routine test-firing of the rocket’s engine prior to the launch led to a delay. The second landing attempt would have taken place about 200 miles east of Jacksonville, Florida, but the company warned that it might not be successful prior to the launch — SpaceX said the rocket had a 50-50 chance of making it.

The barge — or the "autonomous spaceport drone ship" as co-founder Elon Musk likes to call it — measured 300 feet by 100 feet across. The rocket itself is 14 stories tall and 70 feet wide, and in the past, the commercial spaceflight company has compared the landing attempt to balancing "a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm."

SpaceX delayed its launch until Friday

But to land the rocket, SpaceX first has to launch it. Prior to the rescheduled landing, SpaceX will attempt its fifth cargo resupply to the International Space Station. The rocket will be loaded with food and scientific equipment. And although the company has done pretty well during a number of its launches, today's delay and problems from past year have demonstrated that something can always go wrong.

In August, for example, SpaceX saw a developmental version of its own Falcon 9 explode. Then in October, a rocket manufactured by Orbital Science, Antares, was engulfed in flames shortly after liftoff. Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed, killing a test pilot in the process.

When rockets explode, they're "quite difficult to reuse."

Still, it’s possible that the new year will see an uncrewed rocket land safely on a barge out at sea, instead of performing an epic, metal belly-flop. If the landing succeeds on F, SpaceX will have achieved something entirely new — and it will have taken a real step toward cheaper, more eco-friendly spaceflight. "Reusability is the critical breakthrough needed in rocketry to take things to the next level," Musk said in October during a talk at MIT. During its past three launches, SpaceX tried to get its rockets to land upright in the ocean, but the attempts failed each time. In Musk's own words, the rockets "sort of sat there for several seconds, then tipped over and exploded. It's quite difficult to reuse at that point."

Update 6:24AM ET: One minute before Falcon 9 was supposed to launch, SpaceX aborted the mission because of a problem it a "thrust vector control actuator" on the rocket. It has decided to delay the launch to Friday at 5:09AM ET, pending resolution of the issue, NASA says.