SpaceX has successfully returned two Falcon 9 stages to Earth before, splashing down into the ocean, but this will be the first time the company has attempted a landing like this. And the private rocket company doesn't give this test a great chance of success. SpaceX is putting its odds of landing on the platform at about 50 percent, or less, according to the statement released Dec. 16.
Landing a rocket on an ocean platform — a custom craft called an autonomous spaceport drone ship — is not simple. While the pad is large at 300 by 100 feet (91 by 30 meters), with wings that extend its width to 170 feet (52 m), the Falcon 9's landing legs stretch the rocket stage to 70 feet (21 m), and the platform won't be anchored at sea. It's also difficult to bring objects back from space safely.
"Returning anything from space is a challenge, but returning a Falcon 9 first stage for a precision landing presents a number of additional hurdles, " SpaceX representatives said. "At 14 stories tall and traveling upward of 1, 300 m/s (nearly 1 mi/s), stabilizing the Falcon 9 first stage for reentry is like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm."
SpaceX engineers have added some stabilizing "grid fins" to assist in the landing as well. During earlier fly-backs, SpaceX had a landing accuracy of about 6.2 miles (10 km), but this test will require an accuracy of about 33 feet (10 meters) in order to be successful.
Four hypersonic grid fins on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will assist in precision landing.
Friday's launch will mark SpaceX's fifth of 12 official robotic cargo missions to the International Space Station under a .6 billion contract with NASA.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 11 a.m. ET to reflect SpaceX's launch delay announcement released after this story's initial publication.
Follow Miriam Kramer @mirikramer. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.
Miriam KramerMiriam Kramer joined Space.com as a staff writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also serves as Space.com's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.
Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. You can follow Miriam on Twitter and Google+.
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