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.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.