SpaceX is gearing up for its next Falcon 9 rocket launch this Wednesday, which will send a telecommunications satellite into orbit for the company SES. It will also attempt to land its rocket after launch, but doesn't expect a successful recovery.
This mission will also take a different path than originally intended. The launch was supposed to take place in September, but was then repeatedly delayed after one of SpaceX’s rockets exploded on June 28th. Those delays prompted SpaceX to change the flight path for the launch to help get the satellite into its intended orbit much faster, according to SES.
Delays prompted SpaceX to change the flight path for the launch
The SES-9 satellite that SpaceX is launching is meant to go into geostationary orbit — a circular path more than 22,000 miles above the equator. To get there, SpaceX will boost the satellite part of the way into space; then the satellite will propel itself the rest of the way to its intended orbit. Compared to the rocket, the satellite travels very slowly, and may take months to get to where it’s going, according to Space News. And with all the launch delays, SES is eager to get the satellite operational as soon as possible. So SpaceX has agreed to drop off SES-9 at a higher orbit than originally planned, cutting down the satellite’s solo trip.
Rocket recovery will be much more difficult since this satellite is very heavy and going to a very high orbit. The Falcon 9 will need to go a lot faster. That means the rocket will need extra fuel for the actual launch. But it also means there will be less room for the fuel needed to perform a landing afterward. "Given this mission’s unique GTO profile, a successful landing is not expected," SpaceX said in a statement.
The rocket will attempt to land on one of its drone ships at sea, a feat that requires less fuel than a ground landing. SpaceX is also using its new updated Falcon 9 for the launch — a vehicle that's supposed to make rocket recovery easier. But SpaceX has tried three times before to land the Falcon 9 at sea, and it failed to stick the landing each time. (It did get pretty close on its last attempt.) A floating drone ship on a choppy sea is a much more difficult landing target than a large expanse of unmoving land.
SpaceX has been trying for more than a year to land its rockets after launching them into space. It's part of the company's plan to reuse its vehicles in order to bring down launch costs. So far, SpaceX has only been able to land the Falcon 9 on solid ground — as it did in December. But CEO Elon Musk has said that not all missions are suited for ground landings. Demonstrating a successful sea landing would prove that SpaceX is capable of mastering multiple types of rocket recovery, potentially allowing them to reuse even more rockets in the future.
The Falcon 9 is scheduled to take off at 6:46PM ET tomorrow from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Check back here tomorrow to watch the launch live.
Correction: The original version of this article said that changes to the flight path will make it harder for rocket recovery. SpaceX says the heavy satellite and intended geostationary orbit will reduce chances of success. The second and fourth paragraphs have been updated.
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