The SpaceX launch company is scaling back expectations for an unprecedented rocket landing on a floating ocean platform, comparing the feat to "trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm."
The experiment is scheduled to take place on Jan. 6, when SpaceX sends a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket and its uncrewed Dragon cargo capsule toward the International Space Station on a resupply run. After stage separation at an altitude of roughly 60 miles (100 kilometers), the Falcon's first stage is slated to relight its rocket engines and go through a complex series of maneuvers to put itself down on a 300-foot-long (90-meter-long) "autonomous spaceport drone ship" in the Atlantic Ocean.
For decades, launch vehicles have traditionally dropped away their rocket stages, leaving them behind to burn up while the rest of the vehicle ascended to orbit. That's the way it worked for the Saturn 5 back in the days of Apollo, and the way it works for virtually all modern-day rockets. Even the space shuttle jettisoned its external fuel tank for destruction, although its solid rocket boosters fell into the sea and were recovered for refurbishment.
Although suborbital rocket ships have been known to blast off and land again in recent years, no rocket stage has ever flown itself back to a controlled landing after sending a payload to orbit. SpaceX plans to do it using a series of three rocket engine burns, helped along by the use of hypersonic control fins.
The retro rocket firings are meant to slow the 14-story-tall rocket stage's descent from a supersonic speed of 2, 900 mph (1, 300 meters per second) to less than 5 mph (2 meters per second). Just before landing, four landing legs would spring open — and the rocket would settle onto the thruster-stabilized drone ship for eventual return to shore.
An infographic by Jon Ross shows the key phases in the launch-and-landing plan for SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket during Friday's space station resupply mission. Jon Ross
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