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SpaceX will land its next Falcon 9 rocket at sea — not on land

SpaceX/YouTube

After making history in December with its Falcon 9 rocket landing, SpaceX is going to attempt to land the vehicle again on a floating platform at seaIt's a stunt that the company tried twice before in 2015 — and failed at it twice, before succeeding on land.

SpaceX is using a different, older vehicle for this launch, which is what prompted the change. It's using the last of its Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle. That's the version the company was launching before it unveiled its newer, more powerful Falcon 9 — the one that was used for the landing. The updated version has much more thrust than its predecessor, making it easier for the booster to return back to Earth. The Falcon 9 v1.1 isn't as capable, however, and the company says a sea landing will require less fuel.

SpaceX is using a different, older vehicle for this launch

That's because rockets launch up and away from where they take off. Long-exposure photographs of rocket launches show their paths taking parabolic routes. If the Falcon 9 was meant to land back on solid ground near the launch site, it would have to travel a long way back, both vertically and horizontally. But SpaceX's drone ship is located farther away from the launch site in the Pacific Ocean, so the rocket won't have as much distance to cover to get to its landing site. Therefore, less fuel will be required, according to SpaceX.

Still, a small, floating drone ship at sea seems like a much more volatile target than a large, immobile expanse of land. The two previous attempts to land the Falcon 9 at sea have gotten close, but both vehicles ultimately fell over and exploded. And now with one successful rocket landing under its belt, the pressure is on for the company to keep up the good work.

This upcoming mission is scheduled for January 17th, and it will send NASA's Jason-3 ocean-monitoring satellite into orbit. Unlike most of SpaceX's missions, this one will take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Normally, the company launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, where its historic rocket landing took place.