SpaceX has its next rocket launch on Friday, and it's one that holds extra significance for the company. Its Falcon 9 vehicle is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 4:43PM ET, lofting nearly 7,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station. It's the first time that SpaceX will resupply the ISS since the company's last cargo mission in June — a launch that ended in failure.
SpaceX will attempt once again to land the Falcon 9 at sea
Shortly after Friday's launch, SpaceX will attempt once again to land the majority of the Falcon 9 on a drone ship floating on the ocean. It's a feat that the company has tried during four previous missions. Some of those rockets came close to landing in tact on the ship, but SpaceX has yet to recover the vehicle at sea. CEO Elon Musk tweeted that this upcoming mission has a "good chance" of sticking the landing this time, though. So far, SpaceX has only been able to land the Falcon 9 on solid ground post-launch, a technique that was demonstrated for the first time in December.
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A successful landing on Friday would be a crucial step for SpaceX. It would show that the company can touch down its rockets both on solid ground and on floating drone ships. That potentially increases the amount of Falcon 9 rockets that can be recovered post-launch, since not all SpaceX missions are suited for landing on land. Touching down the Falcon 9 on solid ground is certainly easier to pull off than an ocean landing; a large expanse of immobile land is a less challenging target to hit than a small ship floating on a choppy ocean. But it's impossible for some types of missions to return to land after launching into space due to fuel constraints.
If SpaceX recovers the rocket on Friday, it could be the first Falcon 9 that launches a second time into space. The company won't re-launch the Falcon 9 that landed in December, since the rocket holds special significance for SpaceX, according to Musk. However, engineers have conducted tests on that vehicle to see how much damage, if any, it received during flight. Based on those tests, SpaceX will be modifying its vehicles to make them "even more robust" during flight, potentially reducing the amount of refurbishment they would need to launch again. SpaceX President Gwynn Shotwell argues that reusing Falcon 9 rockets after they land could cut launch costs by 30 percent, according to Space News.
This launch will get SpaceX back to fulfilling its obligations for NASA
Apart from its reusability implications, this launch will also get SpaceX back to fulfilling its obligations for NASA. The company holds contracts with the space agency to periodically resupply the space station through 2024. But it's been a year since SpaceX successfully sent cargo to the ISS. In June, a Falcon 9 was loaded up with supplies for the station exploded just a few minutes after taking off. The cause of the failure was a faulty strut in one of the rocket's upper fuel tanks. SpaceX grounded its fleet of vehicles for six months following the incident, while it conducted an accident investigation. The company returned to flight in December, but this is the first flight SpaceX will launch to the ISS since the accident.
The cargo onboard this trip is just as weighty as the mission itself. The Dragon cargo spacecraft riding on the Falcon 9 will be carrying up a number of science experiments, including live mice that will help researchers study muscle atrophy. Also on board is the 3,000-pound Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or the BEAM — an inflatable habitat that will attach the ISS. The BEAM will demonstrate if expandable modules work in space and if their designs can keep astronauts safe.
So far, the launch is on track for its afternoon take off. The company conducted a successful static fire test of the vehicle's engines on Tuesday, and there's a 90 percent chance that weather will be favorable for launch, according to Patrick Air Force Base. Check out the full mission timeline below, courtesy of SpaceX:
Update April 8th, 9:00AM ET: The article was updated to include the mission timeline.