A hotter reentry and lesser fuel make latest landing attempt more difficult than usual.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was almost certain the rocket his company launched yesterday would crash after its successful deployment of a new communications satellite, but it's hard not to admire the man for trying anyway. SpaceX has been trying to land one of the company's Falcon 9 rockets on a floating landing pad in the ocean for months now with no success, and yesterday's launch was particularly challenging as the rocket had much farther to go and thus had to deal with a hotter reentry and less fuel.
The days building up to the mission itself were tough, with the launch getting delayed six times out of worries about everything from the weather to a ship that wandered into the "safety zone" around the landing barge in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. When it finally came, though, the launch was a huge success.
The Falcon 9's payload this time around was the SES-9 satellite aimed at delivering communications services and broadband internet for remote regions of Indonesia and northeastern and Southern Asia. SpaceX had to get the heavy satellite high enough to where it could travel on its own to a geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the earth, or 100 times further out than the International Space Station. It's an impressive feat, but not without a significant cost: with the bulk of the fuel being spent on getting that high, there's very little left for the trip back home.
Still, in the name of learning how to ease the costs of future flights, Musk gave it a shot and his company at least managed to get it out to the pad. Unfortunately, as he said in a tweet last night, the rocket "landed hard." (So hard, in fact, that there's apparently not any public video footage of the crash.)
It's not hard to see why Musk is so determined to get it right. It costs a whopping $60 million to build a Falcon 9 rocket, and that kingly figure vanishes into nothing when the rocket crashes on impact or sinks into the ocean. If SpaceX can properly land its rockets, though, it only loses the $200,000 it takes to fuel them. That amounts to a savings of 99.67 percent.
He's already made significant progress.
SpaceX famously managed to land one of its Falcon 9 rockets on a land-based pad around Cape Canaveral in December, but Musk remains committed to attempting the seaborne landings. Land-based landings costs more fuel on account of the trajectory needed to get back to a convenient landing spot in Florida, while a landing at sea allows for a more natural trajectory that potentially saves SpaceX both fuel and cash.
SpaceX's next opportunity for a landing will be in a couple of weeks when the company sends some cargo to the International Space Station, although it's currently not clear if the company will attempt to land the rocket on the water-based pad or on the land-based one. Whatever Musk goes with, he believes the landing has a "good chance" of being a success.