Why Is This Rocket Different From All Other Rockets?

 Photo credit: SpaceX

Photo credit: SpaceX

Why You Shouldn't Pass Over Tonight's SpaceX Launch

Like many of the commercial rocket company’s endeavors over the last few years, tonight’s historic launch is poised to be a watershed event for modern-day space exploration. For the first time ever, SpaceX plans to launch a “flight proven” Falcon 9 rocket into space and land it, once again, back on Earth.

This has been a long time coming. SpaceX has been testing their rocket landing technology over the past few years, and has succeeded in recovering eight out of thirteen first-stage boosters. The first, which made a ground landing at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Complex 1 after a December 21st, 2015 launch, stands on display outside SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Launching tonight is the company’s second recovered rocket, and the first to successfully land at sea. Following the successful launch of CRS-8 to the International Space Station on April 8, 2016, which brought more than 3,000 kilograms of supplies and experiments to the station, as well as Bigelow Aerospace’s expandable BEAM, the 14-story tall (70-meter) first-stage Falcon 9 booster, designated B1021, landed at sea and was ferried back to Port Canaveral aboard SpaceX’s Autonomous Drone Ship, Of Course I Still Love You. Following recovery efforts on Florida’s Space Coast, B1021 was taken to the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, TX, for cleaning, refurbishment, and engine test fires. 

 Video courtesy of SpaceX

Video courtesy of SpaceX

Utilizing the same rocket engines used for its April launch last year, all nine Merlin engines were fired again on Monday during a routine preflight static test fire. And ‘routine’ is exactly what SpaceX and their customer, communications satellite company SES, hope this launch, and future flight-proven rocket launches will be.

Since the infancy of the space race 60 years ago, this has never before been accomplished.

Reusing a rocket will mark a huge milestone for the commercial spaceflight company, which has made reusability the primary focus of their business strategy, and ultimately paves the way for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s plans for Mars colonization.

 Elon Musk watches a replay of CRS-8's successful landing, at a post-launch press briefing April 8, 2015. Photo credit: theOrbital.space/Josh Dinner

Elon Musk watches a replay of CRS-8's successful landing, at a post-launch press briefing April 8, 2015. Photo credit: theOrbital.space/Josh Dinner

“In order for us to really open up access to space, we’ve got to achieve full and rapid reusability,” Musk told reporters at a post-launch press conference following last April’s successful B1021 Drone Ship landing. “Being able to do that for the primary rocket booster is going to be a huge impact on cost.”

For an industry accustomed to multi-million-dollar rockets plummeting to their destruction after a single use, Elon Musk estimates SpaceX’s ability to recover and reuse launch vehicles will decrease costs by a factor of a hundred, and “is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space,” Musk stated on their website.

SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), unveiled as the company’s Mars colonization vehicle last September, relies on the idea that launching and landing even massive rockets (the ITS stands at a whopping 400 ft) will eventually be as normal as landing and refueling a passenger airliner. “The cost to refuel [a Falcon 9] rocket is only about 200 to 300 thousand dollars. The rocket itself is $60 million. That’s like an aircraft, they are really expensive to construct and buy, but not to refuel. It’s really quite fundamental,” Musk told the press last April.

 

This is not a test.

Satellite communications company SES has full confidence in SpaceX, which offered to launch their payload at a reduced cost. This particular satellite, SES-10, is a communications satellite designed to provide high-speed video and television services across Latin America. SES-10 will be launched into a geostationary transfer orbit - a high orbit that will push the Falcon 9 to its operational limit, leaving the booster with minimal rocket fuel to perform its boost-back and landing maneuvers. But that isn't stopping the company from trying.

“Having been the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX back in 2013, we are excited to once again be the first customer to launch on SpaceX’s first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket. We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management” Marin Halliwell, CTO of SES said in a statement

Should tonight’s rocket land successfully for the second time, SpaceX hopes to reuse the booster yet again, with additional plans to potentially re-fly up to six of their recovered boosters by the end of the year. 

Adding to the significance of tonight’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket will liftoff from the newly renovated Launch Complex-39A. Historically known as the launchpad from which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left for the moon, LC-39A has been refitted to support SpaceX launches of their Falcon 9, as well as the highly anticipated Falcon Heavy.

 Photo credit: SpaceX

Photo credit: SpaceX

 Image courtesy of SpaceX

Image courtesy of SpaceX

Tonight’s two-and-a-half hour launch window opens at 6:27pm ET, Thursday, March 30, with the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron predicting an 80 percent chance of favorable weather.

A backup launch window has been chosen for Saturday. Following a successful launch, the B1021 booster is expected to perform its boost-back maneuver and touch down for a second time on SpaceX’s Autonomous Drone Ship Of Course I Still Love You approximately 8:32 minutes after launch.

Watch the launch LIVE, beginning about 30 minutes prior to liftoff.