On December 22, 2015, Elon Musk's SpaceX made history by becoming the first company to land part of an orbital-capable rocket back on the ground. Now, they want to improve on that capability by landing the first stage of one of their Falcon 9 rockets on a floating barge.
This will not be the first time they have attempted this feat. Two previous attempts at landing on a barge have failed, with spectacularly explosive results. But, off the back of the successful landing on the ground, SpaceX is keen to try again.
The landing attempt will take place at 1:42 p.m. EST (6.42 p.m. GMT) on January 17 at the earliest, after the launch of the Jason-3 satellite from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Two minutes after the launch, the first stage will separate, rotate, and then use its engine and aerodynamic "fins" to steer itself to the barge.
Jason-3, which will measure sea surface height accurate to within a few centimeters, needs to be placed in a near-polar orbit. This launch facility is better for launches like this owing to the inclinations rockets can launch at compared to Cape Canaveral in Florida, where the successful landing in December took place.
Previous attempts have failed rather spectacularly. SpaceX
There is unlikely to be a live stream of the landing attempt on this occasion, although the launch will be live on NASA TV, as the landing will be taking place in the Internet-less Pacific Ocean. But you can expect SpaceX to release high resolution images and video soon after, regardless of if the landing is successful or not.
Being able to land part of the rocket on a barge – the first stage is the main first booster that launches off the ground – opens a new array of launch and landing options for SpaceX. To get back to the launch pad, the first stage has to essentially reverse its entire trajectory, which takes quite a lot of fuel.
But with a barge, the first stage can land further out at sea, requiring less fuel to make a landing. Thus, if more fuel was needed for the launch – to get a satellite in a higher orbit, for example – then a barge landing might be preferable to a ground landing. For this particular launch, a slightly older version of the Falcon 9 is being used, which SpaceX says does not have the necessary power to perform a ground landing.
Shown is the successful first stage Falcon 9 landing on December 22, 2015. SpaceX
Each Falcon 9 costs about $61 million (£42 million), but just $200,000 (£140,000) of that is fuel. Thus, if SpaceX can begin reusing most of each rocket (they have plans to also reuse the second stage), then the cost of launching to space could be dramatically reduced.
"With reusable rockets, we can reduce the cost of access to space by probably two orders of magnitude [a factor of 100],” Musk said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco last month, reported Reuters.
SpaceX has competition, in the form of Blue Origin – owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – which successfully returned its New Shepard rocket from a short “hop” into space in November. This rocket is not capable of reaching orbit yet, and thus is more limited than SpaceX’s fleet. The United Launch Alliance, a powerful and successful launch operator in the U.S., also has plans to reuse its upcoming Vulcan rocket.
But for now, SpaceX is the clear frontrunner in terms of operational capability. Set the date in your diary; we could be about to witness history again.