It's time for SpaceX to start launching rockets again. After a six-month hiatus from spaceflight, the company plans to launch its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:29 PM ET on Monday, December 21st. It marks the first time SpaceX has launched since one of its rockets exploded this past June. And, if return-to-flight weren't significant enough, this launch also comes with an added treat: SpaceX will try to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 after blasting it into space.
The launch was originally scheduled for Sunday evening, but CEO Elon Musk announced on Twitter just hours before launch that it was being pushed back a day.
Just reviewed mission params w SpaceX team. Monte Carlo runs show tmrw night has a 10% higher chance of a good landing. Punting 24 hrs.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 20, 2015
SpaceX conducted a static fire test on Friday, during which the vehicle is restrained and the engines are temporarily ignited to see if they're working properly. It took the company a while to conduct the pre-flight test, as it was having some trouble keeping the Falcon 9's propellant cool enough. After a few delays, Musk said the static fire test went fine and the rocket looks good to go. Though today, Orbcomm — the communications company that contracted the rocket launch — said the postponement will allow SpaceX to review the static fire data some more and allow the propellant to cool even further. That explanation seemed to contradict Musk, however, who indicated that the delay would give SpaceX a better chance of landing the rocket.
SpaceX is getting back into the rocket game pretty quickly
The Falcon 9 will deliver 11 satellites into orbit for Orbcomm, but the real fun comes after the launch takes place. During this week's flight, the first stage of the rocket — or the large portion of the vehicle's body that contains the engines and fuel — will separate from there rest of the rocket and return back to Earth. But rather than land on a floating platform at sea, as the company has tried to do in the past, this landing attempt will occur on solid ground. SpaceX has a landing site at Cape Canaveral named Launch Complex 1, which will serve as the target for this rocket's return; it's also where the company hopes to land the majority of its rockets in the future.
The two times it has tried recovering the Falcon 9 post-launch, SpaceX wasn't able to stick the landing — though it came pretty close to a soft touchdown in April. The rocket that launches on Sunday may finally do the trick. With this mission, SpaceX is unveiling an upgraded version of its Falcon 9, informally called the Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust. The rocket has a different structure and upgraded engine meant to give the vehicle more thrust. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the upgrades will make it easier to recover the rocket after launch.
If SpaceX can pull off both a successful launch and landing this week, it would be a big win for the company, which has had a year filled with ups and downs. On June 28th, a Falcon 9 carrying supplies for the International Space Station disintegrated just minutes after take off. The cause was a faulty strut in one of the rocket's fuel tanks. In light of that, the company is now using a different type of strut in the tanks, and each part is being tested individually as part of regular preflight checks.
SpaceX has spent the past six months fully investigating the accident and regrouping. That may seem like a lengthy time away from spaceflight, but SpaceX is getting back into the game much more quickly than most private companies after an accident. Orbital ATK, another company that resupplies the International Space Station, experienced a failure last October and took off more than a year before returning to flight. Additionally, NASA didn't launch for two years following a Space Shuttle disaster.
Check back here tomorrow to watch the launch live and follow along with our live blog.
Dante D'Orazio contributed to this report.
Update, 4:43PM ET: Added details on delayed launch to Monday, December 21st.
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