The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Tonight, SpaceX Will Attempt to Land a Rocket on Solid Ground

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Are you ready to watch SpaceX try to make history with a bold attempt to send its souped-up rocket all the way into space and back to Earth in a spectacular nighttime launch? Of course you are!

After several delays, the much-anticipated launch of SpaceX’s new and improved Falcon 9 rocket is set to take place tonight. Around 8:29 pm ET, SpaceX will launch a rocket bearing 11 Orbcomm communication satellites into orbit from Space Launch Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Shortly thereafter, the rocket’s first-stage booster will return to Earth and attempt to land gently back on terra firma. SpaceX will be streaming the event here beginning at 8:10 pm ET.


Tonight could wind up being a hugely historic moment in the history of spaceflight, or a total bust. The launch window only lasts five minutes, meaning if there are any last-minute glitches or hangups, the mission could be scrubbed until after Christmas. If the Falcon 9 rocket does take to the air as planned, it has a chance to make spaceflight history, by returning its booster to Earth and making pinpoint propulsive soft landing at the Landing Zone 1 complex, located several miles south Space Launch Pad 40.


Our first look at SpaceX’s new Landing Zone 1. Image Credit: SpaceX/Flickr

It’s a proof-of-principle for SpaceX’s aspirational reusable rocket system, one that would dramatically slash the cost of launches.

The launch was originally planned for Saturday, but the Falcon 9 engine’s static test fire—a standard procedure prior to launches—was delayed, reportedly due to issues with the booster’s new “deep cryo” liquid oxygen propellant system. Specifically, technicians had some trouble chilling the propellant to the very low temperatures (-340ºF) that the new system called for. Lower temperatures increase the rocket fuel’s density, ultimately improving performance.

The test fire finally went off without a hitch late Friday. On Saturday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk took to Twitter to announce that the launch was a-go for Sunday:


But yesterday, he changed his mind:


Finally, we seem to be on for tonight. The rocket’s first and second stage will separate approximately 2 minutes and 24 seconds after launch. After 4 minutes, the first stage will begin its boostback burn, and at around 8 minutes, it’ll re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX has never launched a rocket this high and attempted to bring it back to Earth before—but its upgraded Falcon 9, standing 229 feet tall, has enough fuel to attempt the maneuver. It should take 10 minutes from liftoff for the booster to land.


Falcon 9 on the launch pad in advance of its mission tonight. Image Credit: SpaceX/Flickr

Two prior attempts to land a Falcon 9 booster on an ocean barge earlier this year came very close to success. In one instance, the rocket came in too hard, in the other, it tipped over after landing. We had our first hint that SpaceX’s next bold attempt would be a land-based one earlier this month, but the rumor wasn’t confirmed until this weekend. In theory, it should be a little easier to land on solid ground than on a shaky ocean barge, but I think we’ll have to wait and see.


“If successful, this test would mark the first time in history an orbital rocket has successfully achieved a land landing,” SpaceX said in a statement.

Soft landing aside, a successful launch is critical for SpaceX. The rocket company’s launch schedule was cleared this past summer after a rocket blew up in mid air in June due to a weak strut and a fallen helium tank. Musk himself called the incident a “huge blow” to SpaceX. The company has over 50 launches waiting in line to the tune of billions of dollars of revenue.


A live webcast will be available here beginning at 8:10 p.m. ET.


Top image: Artist’s concept of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster descending to Landing Zone 1 complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX