Science

SpaceX Falcon 9 will attempt to land on ocean platform after ISS trip

Most space rockets are built to be used once because of the destruction caused by a launch. But a private space technology company is hoping to change that with its Falcon 9 rocket launch Tuesday.

Company expects 50% chance or less of successful landing on floating ocean pad

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch Tuesday and head to the International Space Station before attempting to return back to Earth and land on a floating pad on the ocean. (Gene Blevins/Reuters)

Most rockets are built to be used once, with some parts burning up at re-entry to Earth from space and others crashing. But a private space technology company is hoping to change that with its Falcon 9 rocket launch Tuesday.

SpaceX's rocket will launch Tuesday and head to the International Space Station. Minutes after the launch, the first stage of the Falcon 9 will attempt to land on a floating platform on the ocean.

The rocket is split into two stages: the second stage is powered by one engine and delivers the rocket's contents to its destination, while the first stage returns to Earth shortly after launch.

Falcon 9 aims to be the first "fully and rapidly reusable rocket," according to the company, which designs, builds and launches its rockets and spacecrafts.

Up to 50% chance of success

The Falcon 9's first stage will attempt to land on a floating barge in the Atlantic Ocean custom-built for its return.

Stabilizing the Falcon 9 first stage for re-entry is like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm.- SpaceX

It won't be an easy landing, and the company predicts a 50 per cent chance of success — at most.

"Stabilizing the Falcon 9 first stage for re-entry is like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm," a SpaceX statement reads.

Previously, SpaceX has successfully landed its rockets on the water. But, those landings required an accuracy of within 10 kilometres, whereas this landing will require an accuracy of within 10 metres.

The floating platform is 91 metres by 30 metres. It has wings that extend its width to nearly 52 metres. However, the rocket's legspan is some 27 metres long.

Another challenge is that the platform isn't anchored down and won't be completely stationary.

SpaceX added four hypersonic grid fins to the rocket and placed them in an X-wing configuration around its circumference. The fins will help control the rocket's lift vector and allow for a more precise landing.

'Critical data' will be collected at landing

Despite the unlikelihood of a successful landing, SpaceX says the company will be able "to gather critical data to support future landing testing." It hopes to eventually have the Falcon 9 descend on land rather than water.

A reusable rocket "is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access," according to the company.

Falcon 9 will launch at 6:20 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will carry nearly 1,700 kilograms of supplies to support astronauts' research at the ISS.

The launch was set to take place Friday, Dec. 19 last year, but was postponed because of an undisclosed technical issue.

There is a 70 per cent chance the launch will happen, according to NASA's information on the weather forecast.

With files from Reuters and the Associated Press

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