ORLANDO, Fla. — SpaceX plans to try again Sunday evening to land its used rocket on an unmanned barge in the Atlantic Ocean after it launches a satellite into space, an experiment seen as a big step toward making space launches significantly less expensive.
The company is scheduled to launch its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:10 p.m. EST, to carry a space-weather monitoring satellite into space.
The satellite, called the Deep Space Climate Observatory, will help NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Air Force better monitor events such as geomagnetic storms caused by changes in the sun’s wind.
Minutes after the rocket’s launch, SpaceX will attempt to land its next big dream, with ramifications for the space industry worldwide. At stake is SpaceX’s plan to make its rockets reusable, which would revolutionize launches and reduce costs.
“I don’t think it’s too strong to say it really is a game-changing event,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “I think it’s going to have a huge impact on the industry from a cost perspective.”
If SpaceX succeeds, Stallmer and others in the industry think a price-driven space competition could spur a new boom in private and government satellite launches. Worldwide, virtually all rockets are used only once, and the rockets themselves are by far the largest factor in launch costs.
SpaceX has been coy about what it expects to save. But industry observers note that the company now charges $61 million for most launches, which already is the industry’s lowest rate, and say the company might be able to get that bill to less than $10 million.
Others, however, suggest the actual savings of recycling rockets might not be great because the rockets could need significant overhauls before reuse.
“I’ve heard a wild range of numbers (for savings) from nothing to an order of magnitude of 10,” Stallmer said.
Roger Handberg, a University of Central Florida political science professor who specializes in space policy, noted that NASA and the United Launch Alliance were able to retrieve and reuse portions of the space shuttles’ solid rocket boosters, but found little if any savings in doing so. Those boosters, however, landed in the water and were retrieved and towed back to land.
“If they are able to recover it, and if it is in sufficiently good shape, and if they can refurbish it, yeah, it would be a cost savings,” Handberg said. “But I don’t know what the used boosters would look like. It’s going to be a fairly significant impact coming back, even though they’re going to cushion it.”
SpaceX first tried to land a rocket on Jan. 10 after launching its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to send supplies to the International Space Station.
The first stage booster came down guided by rocket engines and fins and found the barge. But as it slowly descended atop the engines’ fire blast, the rocket listed badly. It hit, bounced, fell, and exploded across the deck in a spectacular firestorm that disintegrated the rocket.
“Close but no cigar,” tweeted SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
The company’s only public explanation came from other Musk tweets, which said the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid, but more would be added for the next attempt.
John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University, said the effort was not a failure but a “near success.”
“He got the first stage back from separation to the target, had it hit the barge,” Logsdon said of Musk. “I don’t see any reason why, given that, he can’t eventually succeed.
“It might not come Sunday,” he added.
After making repairs to the landing barge, SpaceX gave it a new name, now painted around the target on the deck: “Just Read the Instructions.”
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