Fresh from its December rocket landing, SpaceX is gearing up to launch another Falcon 9 again on Sunday. The mission will send NASA's Jason-3 ocean-monitoring satellite into orbit, but of course, the real excitement of SpaceX launches these days is what comes afterward. The company is going to attempt to land the rocket's first stage — the 14-story tall portion of the vehicle that contains the engines and fuel.
This time, however, the landing target is a drone ship at sea, not a ground-based spaceport like in December. It's partly because the company failed to get clearance to land on ground for the upcoming launch. But the sea landing will help save on fuel for the return back to Earth. In fact, SpaceX is returning to ocean landings for the next few launches because of fuel considerations.
The real excitement of SpaceX launches is what comes afterward
Ocean landings are much harder to stick than ground landings, though. For one, the ships are floating on the surface of a choppy ocean. Also, the ships that SpaceX uses are 300 feet long and can reach up to 170 feet wide. That's a much smaller area to hit than a large expanse of ground at one of SpaceX's landing zones. SpaceX hasn't successfully stuck its ocean landings yet, either. The two Falcon 9s that tried landing at sea ultimately exploded. It was only when the company switched to ground that it was able to salvage the rocket post-launch.
The company's ultimate vision is to land most, if not all, of its rockets at ground-based spaceports in the future. But if SpaceX is able to land its rockets gently on a smaller, more unpredictable surface, it means the company has much more flexibility. Perfecting an ocean-based landing means SpaceX can pick and choose which kind of landing will work best for each launch. Some deep-space missions, which require more fuel to return the rocket to Earth, might be better suited for barge landings — both logistically and economically.
This could be the first Falcon 9 to be launched into space a second time
Also, if the Falcon 9 lands on Sunday, it's possible that this could be the first rocket to be launched into space a second time. That's the whole purpose of salvaging these rockets in the first place — so that SpaceX can use them again. The first rocket that SpaceX landed won't be reused, as the company considers it too special to launch back into space. But if this Sunday's rocket returns, and it doesn't need too much updating or refurbishment, reusing the vehicle could potentially save the company millions on launch costs. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk noted that the cost of making a Falcon 9 is around $60 million, while it only costs $200,000 to refuel. Reusing rockets eliminates that manufacturing cost — or at least a big chunk of it — and means SpaceX can send equipment, and maybe even people, to space for far less.
But SpaceX has to prove itself first. So far, everything seems to be in place for the launch and landing attempt to happen. The vehicle is slated to take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 1:42PM ET on Sunday. Right now, there's a 100 percent chance of favorable weather conditions that day, but if for some reason the Falcon 9 can't take off, another attempt will be made on Monday. SpaceX performed a successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 on January 11th; that's when the engine is restrained and ignited, to see if everything is working properly. NASA will hold a final launch readiness review later today at 4PM ET, to go over the final details and what to expect for this weekend.
Check back here on Sunday to watch the launch and landing live, and follow along with our liveblog starting at 1PM ET.