Space Exploration Technologies will attempt to land its next Falcon 9 rocket on a platform in the ocean, a key step in the company's quest to develop reusable boosters.
"For the upcoming launch, I think we've got a chance of landing back on a floating landing platform," SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AeroAstro Centennial Symposium.
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The company's next Falcon 9 launch is targeted for Dec. 9 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rocket will be carrying a Dragon cargo capsule for the International Space Station.
Two of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets already have returned from their missions to touch down on the ocean's surface before keeling over and breaking apart.
The rocket is as tall as a 14-story building, noted Musk. "When a 14-story building falls over, it's quite a belly flop."
"We've been able to soft-land the rocket booster in the ocean twice so far. Unfortunately, it just sort of sat there for several seconds then tipped over and exploded," Musk said.
"It's quite difficult to reuse that way," he quipped.
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Ideally, the rockets would land themselves back at the launch site, where they can be refurbished, refueled and fly again.
"Reusability is really the critical breakthrough needed in rocketry to take things to the next level," Musk said, during a webcast talk at the symposium, which was sponsored by MIT's Aeronautics and Astronautics Department.
Before attempting a touchdown from space on land, SpaceX will practice landing on a platform in the ocean.
"We actually have a huge platform that's being constructed in a shipyard in Louisiana right now," Musk said.
The platform will be 300 feet by 170 feet, proving a landing area of 51,000 square feet. "That looks very tiny from space," Musk said.
With its landing legs extended, the Falcon 9 rocket spans 60 feet.
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"We're going to try and land on that on the next flight and if we land ... then I think we'll be able to refly that booster," Musk said, though he puts the odds of success at 50 percent or less for the first try.
"It's tricky. You have these big rollers and GPS errors. (The platform) is not anchored ... but there's a lot of launches that are going to occur over the next year, at least a dozen over the next 12 months. I think it's probably quite likely - 80 percent or 90 percent likely - that one of those flights we'll be able to land and refly. I think we're quite close," Musk said.