New challenges await SpaceX’s next rocket landing attempt

May 19, 2018 – 05:31 pm

A view of SpaceX's rocket landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: SpaceX via Elon MuskA rocket recovery team positioned off Florida’s East Coast is standing by for liftoff Sunday of a Falcon 9 launcher with a space weather satellite, but the demanding trajectory of the flight adds more unknowns to the company’s dicey endeavor to land the booster on a ship at sea, a SpaceX official said Saturday.

Aiming to perfect an unprecedented flyback maneuver with the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage, SpaceX officials say they made changes to the booster after it crash landed on a specially-outfitted barge following a successful Jan. 10 launch to resupply the International Space Station.

The experiments are leading up to SpaceX’s plans to refurbish and reuse rocket boosters in a bid to slash the cost of launching satellites into orbit.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance, was careful to describe the rocket reusability experiment as a strictly secondary objective to the primary purpose of Sunday’s flight: dispatching NOAA’s $340 million Deep Space Climate Observatory toward a post a million miles from Earth.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's vice president of mission assurance. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett“We had some adjustments after the last fairly hard landing on CRS-5, ” Koenigsmann told reporters Saturday, referring to the fiery touchdown Jan. 10. “We fixed the problems.”

The crash destroyed the rocket, but the booster’s guidance system and engines apparently functioned as designed, steering the 14-story stage to the football field-sized barge before it ran out of hydraulic fluid to drive four aerodynamic stabilization fins in the final moments of the Falcon 9’s vertical descent.

SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said the new launcher for Sunday’s flight carries “way more” hydraulic fluid to remedy the problem. At least it should explode for a different reason, Musk quipped on Twitter.

“We ran out of hydraulic fluid shortly after the landing burn started, ” Koenigsmann said. “It was close. Personally, I feel this last time was an enormous accomplishment on the way to refurbishment and reusability of vehicles. I don’t see this as a failure at all. To me, it’s just a development step.”

The unoccupied landing platform — which survived the Jan. 10 landing attempt relatively unscathed — is stationed about 370 miles east-northeast of Cape Canaveral for Sunday’s launch, Koenigsmann said.

The weather in the landing zone should be favorable, according to a forecast issued by Mike McAleenan, the U.S. Air Force’s launch weather officer.

The outlook calls for mostly clear skies, good visibility, and waves of 2 to 4 feet. Surface winds will be out of the south at about 10 knots, McAleenan said.

Conditions at the Falcon 9’s launch site at Cape Canaveral are also predicted to be near-ideal Sunday, with a 90 percent chance of acceptable weather.

The modified barge is dubbed an autonomous spaceport drone ship and christened as “Just Read the Instructions” in a nod to planet-sized starships featured in science fiction author Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, according to a report in


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