Space & Innovation

SpaceX to Make Next Rocket Landing Attempt Sunday

SpaceX is planning to try another epic rocket landing during a satellite launch Sunday (Jan. 17), according to media reports.

SpaceX is planning to try another epic rocket landing during a satellite launch Sunday (Jan. 17), according to media reports.

The private spaceflight company aims to bring the first stage of its two-stage Falcon 9 rocket back for a soft touchdown on an uncrewed ship in the Pacific Ocean during Sunday's launch of the Jason-3 Earth-observation satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

NEWS: Falcon Returns: SpaceX Makes Historic Rocket Landing

The news was first reported by space journalist Charles Lurio via Twitter, and subsequently confirmed by NBC News.

SpaceX has already pulled off a rocket landing; a Falcon 9 first stage touched down at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 21 during the launch of 11 spacecraft for satellite-communications company Orbcomm. The milestone marked the first time a booster had ever landed softly during an orbital liftoff. (Blue Origin, a company headed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, landed its New Shepard rocket during a suborbital test flight this past November.)

SpaceX has attemped a Falcon 9 sea landing twice before, once in January 2015 and again in April of that year. Both times, the rocket stage hit its target but came in too hard, toppling and exploding on the ship's deck.

ANALYSIS: SpaceX Releases Amazing (and Explosive) Video of Rocket Landing

These touchdown attempts are part of SpaceX's efforts to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, technology that company founder and CEO Elon Musk says could cut the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100. Such dramatic price reductions could, in turn, make Mars colonization economically feasible, Musk has said.

The Jason-3 satellite is designed to measure variations in global sea level extremely precisely, allowing researchers to a get a better understanding of the ongoing effects of climate change. The spacecraft's observations will add to a dataset that has been accruing since the 1992 launch of the TOPEX/Poseidon mission.

The Jason-3 mission is a joint effort involving the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the European climate-satellite organization EUMETSAT, the French space agency CNES and NASA.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 First Stage Comes In Hot In Alternate NASA View | Video Originally published on Space.com. Copyright 2016 SPACE.com, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

The first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket attempts to land on an uncrewed ship in the Atlantic Ocean on April 14, 2015. The booster hit its target but ended up toppling over on the ship’s deck.

A repaired and upgraded Falcon 9 rocket not only put SpaceX back in the launch business on Monday, it stunningly demonstrated that with enough time, technical expertise and maybe a little luck, it’s possible to return a rocket booster to the launch site. Here’s a look back at the highs and lows along the way to this historic moment.

MORE: Falcon Returns: SpaceX Makes Historic Rocket Landing

SpaceX pulled off an historic first Monday night, launching a network of communications satellites into orbit, and then landing the rocket’s jettisoned main stage back near the launch site. SpaceX gave its customer, Orbcomm, a cut-rate $47 million, two-flight deal, a savings for more than $70 million. Orbcomm, which operates machine-to-machine communications systems, such as between shipping containers and retailers, was an early SpaceX adopter, booking rides on the company’s now-decommissioned Falcon 1 launcher. SpaceX moved Orbcomm to its bigger Falcon 9 rockets for the same price. Landing the booster was the icing on the cake, an experiment conducted at SpaceX’s expense. The touchdown, however, may lead to even better prices for Orbcomm and SpaceX’s other customers in the future, with a new category of launch vehicle in the offing slightly used.

PHOTOS: Before Falcon 9, SpaceX Learned From Falcon 1 Flops

Photo: This is a striking timelapse image shows the bright streaks caused by the Falcon 9 launch and its returning first stage booster.

SpaceX founder and chief executive had a nasty surprise on his 44th birthday: a Falcon 9 rocket blasting off to deliver a load of cargo to the International Space Station broke apart about two minutes after liftoff from Florida on June 28. It was the first failure of the Falcon 9, which had flown 18 times previously. The accident, which was caused by a faulty strut in the rocket’s upper-stage liquid oxygen tank, kept the Falcon 9 fleet grounded for six months.

MORE: Faulty Strut Likely Caused SpaceX Rocket Explosion

Photo: This image is a snapshot of the dramatic NASA TV footage of the moment when the Falcon 9 rocket exploded moments after lift off on June 28.

Following a series of tests to control booster descent, SpaceX customized a pair of ocean platforms in hopes of bringing a Falcon 9 first-stage back intact, a key step in the company’s quest to develop a reusable launcher, one that could fly for a fraction of today’s going rate. Nailing the landing was “like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm,” SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said at the time. During the first attempt to land at sea, in January 2015, the booster hit the target, but landed too hard, primarily because the hydraulic system needed to operate stabilizing grid fins, ran out of fluid. The next attempt, in April, a stuck valve prevented the booster from reacting fast enough to maintain position after a successful touchdown. It toppled over and exploded.

VIDEO: SpaceX Releases Amazing (and Explosive) Video of Rocket Landing

Photo: During ocean landing tests, SpaceX proved they could return their Falcon 9 boosters to a precise target, but maintaining stability on touchdown has been a problem.

SpaceX’s early attempts to develop rocket landing technologies included a suborbital testbed called Grasshopper, which was used for low-altitude, low-speed hover and landing tests beginning in September 2012. On its eighth and final flight in October 2013, Grasshopper flew to an altitude of 2,441 feet and landed. A follow-on program, the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle, or F9R, had a successful debut in April 2014, but crashed due to a faulty sensor four months later.

PHOTOS: SpaceX Grasshopper Rocket Takes Giant Leap

Photo: The experimental Grasshopper rocket hovers over its launch site during early tests.

One of the first to offer congratulations to Elon Musk and SpaceX for nailing a rocket landing was Jeff Bezos, fellow billionaire rocketeer who founded his own space company, Blue Origin, in 2000, a couple of years before Musk started SpaceX. “Welcome to the club!” Bezos posted on Twitter, a not-so-oblique reference to his company nailing a landing of its suborbital New Shepard rocket a month ago. After that feat, Musk took to Twitter to offer his own congratulations, also couched with comments about the relative difficulty of landing from orbital versus suborbital velocities. Rocket races, anyone?

MORE: Blue Origin Nails Rocket Landing

Photo: Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket achieves touchdown after a successful suborbital launch test.

Cheap, reusable rockets aren’t just good for business. SpaceX founder Elon Musk sees them as an essential part of the technology needed to get to Mars. “Now is the first time in the history of Earth ... where it's possible for us to extend life to other planets," Musk said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this month. "That window may be open for a long time -- and hopefully it is -- but it also may be open for a short time," he said. “The wise move is to make life multi-planetary while we can.” A large part of making space travel affordable is reducing launch costs, hence SpaceX’s steadfast efforts to develop reusable rockets. Musk said each Falcon 9 costs about $16 million to build, but fuel for the flight is a relatively cheap $200,000. Slashing costs by that much is a game-changer. SpaceX’s next job will be to assess the condition of the recovered Falcon and then possibly fly it again.

MORE: Musk: SpaceX Making 'Progress' Toward Mars Colony