For more than 50 years, rockets have been launching into space. For the first time one will attempt to land as well.
The test, to be conducted by privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, kicks off what could be a game-changing year for Elon Musk’s 12-year-old rocket company.
With cut-rate pricing already reshaping the commercial satellite launching business, SpaceX is developing technology to land its rockets after flight so they can be refurbished and re-flown, bringing prices down by an order of magnitude or more.
“If they can do this successfully and then routinely it really is going to cut the cost of space launches. It’s a paradigm shift,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Washington DC-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told media.
SpaceX is due to launch its 14th Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rocket will send a Dragon cargo ship on its way to the International Space Station for NASA.
After the upper stage and capsule separate, the rocket’s first stage will attempt to re-flight some of its engines, slowing its descent back through the atmosphere and positioning itself to touch down on a specially made platform in the Atlantic Ocean.
The company puts its chance of success at 50 percent.
"Though the probability of success ... is low, we expect to gather critical data to support future landing testing," the company said.
"At 14 stories tall and traveling upwards of 1,300 miles per second stabilizing the Falcon 9 first stage for re-entry is like trying to balance a broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm," it added.
Two of the company’s rockets already have returned after launching to touch down on the ocean’s surface before keeling over and breaking apart.
Landing on a platform in the ocean is a steppingstone toward winning permission to fly the rockets back to land, which is close to populated areas.