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SpaceX may finally land one of its rockets on the California coast later this year

Finally: a land landing at Vandenberg

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California
Image: SpaceX

After mastering its rocket landings on the Florida coast, SpaceX wants to try the same trick in California. The company recently filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission to land one of its Falcon 9 rockets on ground at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California, following a launch from the facility there. If that happens, it’ll be the first time that SpaceX has done a land landing on the West Coast.

SpaceX has two options for landing its rockets following a launch. The company can touch down the vehicle on a floating drone ship in the ocean, or the rocket can return to its launch site and land on a concrete slab on the ground. Whichever option SpaceX picks depends on the type of launch that takes place and whether the rocket has enough fuel to perform the landing. For instance, returning back to land requires more fuel than a drone ship landing, so launches that eat up a lot of propellant during the ascent usually have to land in the ocean (if it all).

So far, SpaceX has done slightly more drone ship landings than ground-based ones: 14 to 11. And most of these recoveries have occurred out of Cape Canaveral, Florida — the company’s most-used launch site — where rockets fly eastward over the Atlantic. In fact, all of the company’s ground landings have occurred in Florida (and they’ve all been successful, too). However, the company does do a handful of launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, whenever it needs to fly southward to put satellites on a north-south orbit around Earth. SpaceX has pulled off four successful drone ship landings after launches from Vandenberg but has yet to send a rocket back to the California coast.

SpaceX successfully landed two rocket boosters on land in Florida following the launch of its Falcon Heavy vehicle in February
Image: SpaceX

The infrastructure has been in place for a while to do land landings at Vandenberg, though. In 2015, SpaceX leased a site at the Air Force Base, where the company added a concrete landing pad for its rockets. However, the company has yet to receive clearance for a landing at the site. The Federal Aviation Administration did a study to figure out if landing Falcon 9s at Vandenberg would negatively affect the environment there and determined that this wouldn’t pose any big threats.

Now it looks like SpaceX is finally going to make one of these California landings happen. For both its launches and landings, SpaceX must get a license from the FCC to use certain radio frequencies to communicate with the rocket. The FCC application that SpaceX filed requests a license for a launch from Vandenberg sometime between September 5th and March 5th. SpaceX will also need an additional license from the FAA for the landing too, to ensure that the rocket won’t hurt any observers or damage property. But getting the FCC license will be a big first step.

Landing on land is a bit more convenient for SpaceX, since the company doesn’t have to haul the rocket back to shore as it does with drone ship landings. Plus, ground landings are pretty spectacular to watch, and the California coast will make for a great backdrop. A livestream of a Vandenberg landing would be a pretty one to see — as long as the fog doesn’t get in the way.