SpaceX will test out new stabilizing fins that could help land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a floating barge in the Atlantic Ocean after liftoff on a space station resupply mission in mid-December, according to Elon Musk, the company’s billionaire leader.
Hoping to use an operational flight as an experiment to advance the company’s bid for a reusable rocket — a breakthrough that could change the landscape of the launch industry if perfected — SpaceX is finishing work on a ocean-going landing pad at a Louisiana shipyard.
The vessel could be used to wring out how to program rocket boosters to fly themselves back to the ground from the edge of space more than 50 miles up.
Musk posted a brief description of the barge, along with four “grid fins” to aerodynamically stabilize the rocket’s first stage during descent, to his Twitter page Saturday.
Dubbing the vessel an “autonomous spaceport drone ship, ” Musk wrote the landing pad uses thrusters repurposed from a deep sea oil drilling rig to keep the barge within 3 meters — about 10 feet — of the correct position.
Emblazoned with a SpaceX logo in the center of a bull’s-eye painted on a black deck, the barge is 300 feet long with extendable wings to stretch its width to 170 feet, according to Musk.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk)
SpaceX’s next launch is set for Dec. 16 from Cape Canaveral with an unmanned Dragon cargo ship carrying more than 3, 700 pounds of supplies and experiments for the International Space Station.
The launch will mark SpaceX’s fifth operational logistics mission to the complex under contract to NASA. The company’s current agreement is worth $1.6 billion and covers 12 cargo flights through the end of 2016.
The Falcon 9 rocket set to launch Dec. 16 is outfitted with aerodynamic fins stowed against the launcher during the first stage’s nearly three-minute firing after liftoff.
After releasing the rocket’s upper stage to propel the Dragon supply ship into orbit, the lower part of the booster will fire a subset of its nine engines for a re-entry burn to guide it toward a designated landing zone in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral.
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