Update: SpaceX brought its Falcon 9 first stage back to Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral, in the company’s second successful ground landing. The Dragon capsule full of supplies will reach the International Space Station in two days.
SpaceX has spent most of 2016 making records: first rocket landing on a barge; second rocket landing on a barge; third rocket landing on a barge. Heck, even their so-called failures are pretty notable. Do you know any other company crashing rockets into barges in the name of incremental success?
And let’s not forget that long before SpaceX had proven itself at sea, it had pulled off a very important feat that sounds less badass only by comparison: landing its ship on the ground. Tonight, it’ll attempt that feat again.
So why aren’t Musk & Co. going for the sea landing? Well, landing on solid ground is less risky than landing at sea. Tonight’s mission is delivering supplies to the International Space Station and its new crew members, which means it only has to launch its payload–a goodie-laden Dragon capsule–to low Earth orbit. That’s only around 300 miles up, and doesn’t require much thrust. The Falcon 9 will have enough fuel left over to reverse out of its parabolic arc and back towards SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral (very close to where it was launched from).
This is SpaceX’s second attempted ground landing for an active mission. The company nailed its first attempt in December 2015. Sure, Blue Origin had pulled off the ground-landing feat about a month beforehand, but only after flying the rocket to the technical edge of space–100 kilometers up, not really a viable altitude for any real mission. SpaceX’s first ground landing was notable for another reason, too. It was the first launch, or landing, attempt since the company had a Falcon 9 explode shortly after takeoff in April 2015.
Tonight they face similar stakes, though to a much lesser degree. SpaceX’s last landing attempt failed. The June 15 mission fireballed on the company’s faithful droneship, “Of Course I Still Love You.” A successful landing tonight would offer a little bit of redemption, as well as yet another record: fifth time bringing a rocket back from an active space mission.
Watch live up top. The livestream begins at 12:25am ET, with the launch scheduled for 12:45am ET. The landing attempt will happen a few minutes after launch.