What's next for a company that just made spaceflight history by sending a rocket into orbit and safely landing it back on Earth? Why, doing it again, of course — but this time, on an ocean platform. That's the latest bold challenge SpaceX plans to take on, according to NBC News. The launch will reportedly take off January 17, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and will be carrying a new NASA satellite that will provide high resolution data on the ocean surface and sea level rise.
SpaceX made history last month as the first company to send a rocket into orbital space and land it back on Earth. It's a first major step toward the company's aspirational reusable rocket system, one which would dramatically cut the cost of sending payloads into orbit. (In November, private rocket company Blue Origin became the first to send a rocket to suborbital space and back).
But if you've been following SpaceX's reusable rocket saga, you'll know this is hardly the first time the company has flirted with ocean platforms. Prior to sticking its landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station last month, SpaceX made several failed (but close) attempts to land a Falcon 9 rocket on a drone barge in the middle of the ocean. After a June launch disaster during which a faulty strut caused a Falcon 9 to blow up in mid-air, SpaceX went radio silent for about six months. In December, the company announced that it'd be attempting a rocket landing once more, this time, on solid ground. In theory, sticking a landing at Cape Canaveral is easier than touching down softly on a shaky ocean barge.
Now that the company has stuck the land-based landing, it's decided to double down on its ocean barge goal. Being able to land rockets in the ocean means far more flexibility in terms of where launches can proceed. In theory, a mobile landing site could be placed wherever it's most fuel efficient for a given mission to return to Earth. It also (obviously) poses much less risk to nearby infrastructure and humans.
The January 17 launch won't feature the exact same Falcon 9 rocket SpaceX landed in December. Even though the goal is to build rockets that can be used many times over, Elon Musk wants to save his first "reusable" Falcon 9 as a historical piece. We can expect, however, that the upcoming launch will involve another version of SpaceX's new, souped-up Falcon 9 — which is 1.5m taller and holds more fuel than previous models. According to SpaceX, the latest Falcon 9 model exhibits 40 per cent better performance overall, due to its deep-cryo liquid oxygen propellant system.
Will SpaceX make history for the second time in two months? We'll have an answer very soon.
Top image: A SpaceX ocean barge, similar to the one that the company will use in its January 17th launch.