After a lengthy hiatus from spaceflight, SpaceX will launch its next Falcon 9 rocket again on December 19th. The rocket will carry 11 satellites for the New Jersey-based telecommunications company Orbcomm into lower Earth orbit. It will be the first time the Falcon has flown in the past six months. Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, revealed the launch date on Twitter early this morning, noting that the launch would be "about three days" after December 16th.
Aiming for Falcon rocket static fire at Cape Canaveral on the 16th and launch about three days later— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 10, 2015
SpaceX's rockets have been grounded since June, after one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded while carrying supplies to the International Space Station. CEO Elon Musk revealed that the failure was caused by a faulty steel strut in the rocket's fuel tank — a type of strut that has flown thousands of times before. After the accident, the company launched a detailed investigation into the issue, and Musk noted that moving forward, all the struts in the fuel tanks would be individually tested before each flight.
SpaceX's rockets have been grounded since June
The upcoming launch will test out a new version of the Falcon 9 that will make it easier for the company to recover the rocket after take-off. For the past year, SpaceX has been trying to gently land its Falcon 9 rocket on a platform at sea post-launch. Normally, orbital rockets are either destroyed or lost after taking off, so recovering the rocket in tact would be a technological first. This time around, SpaceX will try another type of first, too. It will attempt to land the rocket back on solid ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida rather than its autonomous drone ship in the ocean.
Landing its rockets on land has always been SpaceX's long-term goal — but the idea to try out a ground landing now may have been partially inspired by rival Blue Origin. The private space company, helmed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced in November that it had successfully landed its sub-orbital rocket New Shepard after launching it into space. Many were quick to compare the two companies, claiming that Blue Origin had beaten SpaceX. However, landing SpaceX's Falcon 9 is a bit more complex than landing New Shepard.
Still, SpaceX has yet to stick its rocket landings, but this updated Falcon 9 rocket may do the trick. Known as the Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust, the rocket has a slightly modified structure and contains higher-performance Merlin 1D engines, meant to give the vehicle 30 percent more power. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says the new rocket's additional thrust will better help the vehicle land after launching heavier payloads into orbit.
SpaceX originally intended to return to flight by launching a telecommunications satellite for SES, a global satellite provider based out of Luxembourg. However, the company announced in October that it would do the Orbcomm mission first, because it would allow SpaceX to do a little extra testing. The Falcon 9 can get the Orbcomm satellites into orbit without having to reignite the engine in the rocket's upper stage — the smaller portion of the vehicle that remains after the main rocket body detaches. So after the Orbcomm satellites are safely deployed, SpaceX plans to reignite the upper stage engine anyway to see if it will work okay for the upcoming SES mission, which is planned for late December. Usually, the upper stage engine must ignite a second time to carry larger objects beyond lower Earth orbit.
A lot of eyes will be on this launch, especially those at NASA. SpaceX is one of two companies that will be transporting NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station starting in 2017; the company needs to get back on track with its launch schedule in order to safely meet that deadline. SpaceX is also in the running for NASA's second round of Commercial Resupply contracts, which task private companies with periodically resupplying the ISS. Those contracts will be awarded in January 2016, and this upcoming launch will likely factor into NASA's decision.
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