SpaceX Tries Again for Reusable Rocket Landing on Drone Ship

SpaceX hopes for a historic upright landing of a reusable rocket on a drone ship after past attempts faltered

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SpaceX Tries Again for Reusable Rocket Landing on Drone Ship
Photo: SpaceX

Update, 14 April: The third SpaceX attempt to land a reusable rocket on a drone ship came close to success, but not quite. “Looks like Falcon landed fine, but excess lateral velocity caused it to tip over post landing,” Elon Musk tweeted.

SpaceX has twice attempted to land a reusable rocket on a drone ship at sea. One ended in flames, and the other culminated in a water splashdown. But the sixth SpaceX mission to resupply the International Space Station offers a new opportunity for the private spaceflight firm to once again test its potentially game-changing vision for cutting the costs of future space missions.

The reusable rocket in question represents the first stage of a Falcon 9 heavy rocket. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is the workhorse of the commercial rocket fleet that has been launching supplies to the space station under NASA contract. The latest launch was delayed from its initial Monday 13 April time slot because of weather issues, but has been rescheduled for a second launch attempt around 4:10 PM EDT today.

SpaceX designed the Falcon’s first stage so that it could return safely to Earth; it uses engine burns to slow its descent. The rocket also has four hypersonic grid fins to help guide it in for pinpoint landings aboard a drone ship platform. The idea is meant to work if the rocket stage can touch down with a landing accuracy of within 10 meters.

Two previous attempts to return the reusable rocket have already faltered. In January, the first attempt led to the Falcon first stage landing too hard on the drone ship platform and exploding. A second attempt in February was scrubbed because of rough weather, but the Falcon first stage still managed a nice upright water splashdown.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, is probably crossing his fingers that the third time’s the charm for realizing his reusable rocket vision. The drone ship waiting for the reusable rocket this time around is named “Just Read the Instructions,” in honor of science fiction writer Iain M. Banks.

A successful test could help cut the costs of rocket launches and space access in the future. That in turn could help open the door for more ambitious space missions such as human forays to Mars.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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