Friday's SpaceX cargo run to the International Space Station will make the astronauts happy, but the really exciting part comes after the Dragon is set free. The Falcon 9 rocket will attempt a soft touchdown landing on a barge for the first time, a massive step towards reusable rocketry.
Top image: Landing pad on the SpaceX autonomous spaceport drone ship.
The Falcon 9 has pulled off soft landings on water before, slowing down to a standstill before tumbling sideways into the waves. But this time, SpaceX is slipping a barge with a nice, big X into position to mark the landing site. They're being cautions — odds are currently set at only 50% that they'll successfully slow the rocket down from 1300 meters/second (that's just under 1 mile per second!) peak speed to more reasonable 2 meters/second by touch down, and do it all while maintaining landing accuracy to within 10 meters to actually land on the barge. But even if they miss, the SpaceX team will learn something from this audacious attempt and get even closer to success next time.
Fins to steer the Falcon 9 to a safe, watery landing.
The newest generation of Falcon 9 rockets feature new hypersonic grid fins to enhance landing accuracy. The fins will be stored during ascent, deploying only during reentry to try and control the rocket's vector. Each fin will tweak independently, altering roll, pitch, and yaw while working with engine gimbaling to hopefully allow a precision landing. If it works for touching down on the barge — "autonomous spaceport drone ship" if we're going to be technical about it — and later attempts on land, SpaceX will move a not-so-tiny step closer to an era of reusable rocketry.
And if it doesn't work? They'll still learn a lot for next time. They have at least a dozen launches planned for the next year where they can apply what they learned to stabilize the platform, increase accuracy, and tweak what needs tweaking until they learn how to do this.
Good luck, SpaceX. This is a daring move, and I look forward to seeing what happens.
All images credit SpaceX. Read more on SpaceX.