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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

2 min read
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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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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