Elon Musk Is Trying Something Next Week That Could Forever Change Spaceflight
SpaceX had originally slated the launch for Dec. 19, but after the rocket's Merlin 1D engines failed to run for the full three seconds during a static fire test on Dec. 17, the company rescheduled for early 2015.
A second test on December 19 was successful, clearing the rocket for launch in January, which will end with a test of the rocket attempting to land upright on an open-ocean platform — a big hurdle to making reusable rockets. Elon Musk said that the attempt has about a 50% chance of success.
The Jan. 6 launch will ferry 3,700 pounds of science experiments, spare parts, food, water, and other supplies to the International Space Station on the Dragon spacecraft.
But the most important part of the launch will not be what goes up, but what comes down. After the Falcon 9 rocket has emptied most of its fuel, it will detach from the Dragon spacecraft. That's when things get interesting as the rocket, using GPS tracking, navigates its way down onto a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean. But it won't be easy.
"During previous attempts, we could only expect a landing accuracy of within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). For this attempt, we're targeting a landing accuracy of within 10 meters (33 feet)," SpaceX said in a statement.
Doing this will be like "trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm," the statement said.
No first-stage rocket has ever been recovered for reuse before. If successful on Jan. 6, the company will set a new standard in space exploration — one that could eventually cut the cost of space travel by a factor of 100, according to Musk.
Building a rocket that can be used more than once is an extremely important step in ultimately sending a manned space mission to and from Mars that could use the rocket to land and, more importantly, leave Mars to return to Earth. A drone ship for a remote rocket
Last year, SpaceX made multiple attempts to land a rocket softly in the ocean. A soft landing would maintain the integrity and reusability of the rocket. But after they successfully achieved the first soft landing in history in April 2014, the rocket toppled sideways in the high seas damaging it beyond repair. This hasn't deterred SpaceX. Since landing in the water won't work they've turned to something else.
The new plan? Create a self-stabilizing floating platform to sit in the ocean and wait for the rocket's return.
"I think we've got a chance of landing on a floating landing platform," Elon Musk said last October at the MIT AeroAstro Centennial Symposium. "And if we land on that, then I think we'll be able to re-fly that booster."
Just last month, Musk tweeted images of the football-field long platform. They plan to use GPS tracking, the rockets newly attached "X-wings," and other technology to help safely guide the multi-million-dollar Falcon 9 onto the platform.
These hypersonic X-wings, shown in the picture above, will deploy upon reentry and help the rocket steer itself onto the platform. The legspan of the rocket is about 70 feet wide, and the platform has a width about 3 times that length, so precision is key in this game-changing attempt.
"It's probably not more than a 50% chance or less of landing it on the platform," Musk said, still optimistic at the MIT AeroAstro Centennial Symposium. "But there's at least a dozen launches that will occur over the next 12 months, and I think it's quite likely, probably 80 to 90% likely, that one of those flights will be able to land and re-fly. So I think we're quite close."