Tonight, SpaceX Will Attempt to Launch and Land Its Most Powerful Rocket Yet

Following a spate of failures, Elon Musk and his team are gunning for a win.

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Dec 20 2015, 6:00pm

CRS-6 Falcon landing. Image: SpaceX.

Since its inception, SpaceX has been working towards a vision of workhorse rockets that can be launched, landed, and saddled up with a new payload. Tonight, the company is hoping to tackle the next challenge in the pursuit of these reusable launch systems by landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on solid ground. You can watch the event, which is scheduled to go down at 8:29 PM EST, live on SpaceX's webcast or at the below YouTube link.

"Previous attempts to recover the first-stage of the Falcon 9 have been attempted out at sea using the company's Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships," SpaceX noted in a statement.

"If successful, this test would mark the first time in history an orbital rocket has successfully achieved a land landing."

What's more, tonight's launch will debut the most powerful SpaceX vehicle ever flown. Endowed with the epic name "Full Thrust" Falcon 9, the rocket will include a beefed-up first stage booster that stands 229.6 feet tall, about five feet higher than previous models.

The size difference translates to an uptick of about 200,000 pounds of thrust. This bonus oomph will enable the rocket to deliver its commercial payload of 11 ORBCOMM satellites to low Earth orbit, while setting aside enough fuel for a controlled descent of the first stage back to its target destination, Cape Canaveral's Landing Zone 1, beginning about 10 minutes after blasting off.

Hopefully, the landing works out, because SpaceX could really use a win right now. The company's last two attempts to pull off a soft landing resulted in the engines blowing up on their ocean barge landing sites.

These failures were further compounded by the disastrous explosion of the SpaceX cargo resupply (CRS) mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on June 28, which resulted in the loss of both the Falcon 9 rocket and the SpaceX Dragon capsule containing 4,000 pounds of food, supplies, and experiments to ISS astronauts.

To add insult to injury, spaceflight company Blue Origin, one of SpaceX's most bitter rivals, successfully landed its signature booster on solid ground, following a suborbital flight, on November 23. As Motherboard's Jason Koebler notes, Blue Origin's goal of reusing rockets for suborbital spaceflight is a lot simpler than SpaceX's goal of reusing orbital spacecraft, but the landing was still a reminder that SpaceX is no longer the only name in the recyclable rocketry game.

With all that in mind, Elon Musk and his team are hoping to revive some of SpaceX's vertical landing prestige, and snatch the record for the first overland touchdown following an orbital flight. It would be a great comeback for the company if everything works out, but if either the launch or landing fails, it will round out what might well be SpaceX's worst year ever.

Clearly, there is a lot riding on today's launch, both for the company's reputation as well as the larger, exciting goal of pioneering the reusable rocket systems of the future. Be sure to tune in.