If you find yourself without Saturday night plans this evening, why not enjoy a nice SpaceX launch? The company’s eighth Falcon 9 launch of this year is scheduled to take off tonight from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 1:26AM ET, sending a Japanese communications satellite — called JCSAT-16 — into orbit around Earth. And no SpaceX launch is complete these days without a rocket landing attempt afterward. Just a few minutes after the Falcon 9 takes off tonight, a majority of the vehicle will try to land upright on one of SpaceX’s floating drone ships, "Of Course I Still Love You."
No SpaceX launch is complete these days without a rocket landing attempt afterward
Tonight’s Falcon 9 will be sending the JCSAT-16 satellite into a very high orbit known as geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), which is why the drone ship is needed to recover the vehicle this time. The GTO destination will also make landing the rocket challenging, according to SpaceX, since the vehicle "will be subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating." However, SpaceX has successfully landed Falcon 9s that have gone to GTO before, including a rocket in May that launched another JCSAT satellite.
While SpaceX is also capable of landing its rockets on land (which the company demonstrated for the second time this July), it opts for drone ship landings for many of its rockets — specifically those that travel to high orbits or launch particularly heavy payloads. Such missions eat up a lot of fuel during the rocket’s takeoff, leaving less fuel leftover to perform the landing. And since drone ship landings require less fuel to pull off than land landings (something we explain here), recovering the Falcon 9 at sea is sometimes the only option for SpaceX.
If the Falcon 9 lands intact tonight, SpaceX will have six recovered rockets
If the Falcon 9 lands intact tonight, SpaceX will officially have six recovered rockets in its possession. However, the company has yet to actually reuse one of these reusable rockets. The goal right now is to re-launch a Falcon 9 that the company landed in April sometime this fall, either in September or October, according to CEO Elon Musk. Until then, SpaceX seems to be acquiring a nice little stockpile of rockets that have gone to space.
Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the landing, SpaceX’s main priority tonight is getting JCSAT-16 into orbit. So far, weather forecasts show a 80 percent chance of favorable conditions, and the company has a two-hour launch window for this mission, too. If for some reason the Falcon 9 can’t launch right away, it can take off any time until around 3:26AM ET. There’s also a backup launch date on August 15th starting at 1:26AM ET.
If you’re up and near a computer, check back a little after 1AM ET to watch SpaceX’s livestream of the event.