A space weather satellite was set to blast off yesterday for a destination 1.6 million kilometers away, but it is the rocket’s ocean landing that is stealing the spotlight.
SpaceX is to make a second attempt at landing a booster on a platform floating off the Florida coast; last month’s experiment ended in a fireball.
The near miss on Jan. 10 was caused by an insufficient amount of hydraulic fluid. SpaceX added extra fluid for yesterday’s planned sunset landing attempt. However, the booster was to fly back faster this time given its particular course, and the company was less certain of success in this attempt to demonstrate rocket reusability.
“So on one side we fixed the problem, on the other side this trajectory is a lot more aggressive and a lot more difficult,” SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann said on Saturday.
He said that the test was secondary and entirely separate from the primary mission of launching the Deep Space Climate Observatory for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Excellent weather was forecast for the 6:10pm launch.
The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is the revitalized version of the Earth-observing spacecraft conceived in the late 1990s by then-US vice president Al Gore. It was called Triana back then, after the sailor who first spotted land on Christopher Columbus’ famed voyage.
The Triana program was suspended, however, and the spacecraft put in storage in 2001. The spacecraft was tested seven years later and refurbished for this new US$340 million mission known as DSCOVR — a joint effort by NASA, NOAA and the air force.
DSCOVR is set to travel to the so-called Lagrange point, or L1, a spot 1.6 million kilometers from Earth and 148 million kilometers from the sun, where gravity fields are neutralized.
The spacecraft is set to observe Earth from this ideal vantage point, but its primary objective is to monitor outbursts from the sun that could disrupt communications and power back on Earth.
Once DSCOVR is on its way, the main booster of the SpaceX Falcon rocket is to aim for the ocean platform and attempt a vertical landing within nine to 10 minutes after liftoff.
The platform, smaller than a football field — dubbed “Just Read the Instructions” by SpaceX founder and chief executive officer Elon Musk — was to be stationed about 595km offshore.
No one was to be on this autonomous drone ship; SpaceX staff were to be a safe 40km away aboard a recovery boat.
During a space station cargo run for NASA on Jan. 10, the Falcon’s leftover booster ran out of hydraulic fluid for its guidance fins, but still managed to hit the platform.
The booster landed hard, tumbled and exploded, causing minor damage to the platform. Musk termed the attempt “close, but no cigar.”
At a news conference on Saturday, Koenigsmann said the company came away pleased. Officials originally pegged the odds of success at 50-50, the same again this time, more or less.
“Personally, I feel this last time was really an enormous accomplishment” on the way to refurbishing and reusing rockets, Koenigsmann said. “I don’t see this as a failure at all. To me, it’s just a development step.”
By reusing rockets, SpaceX hopes to lower launch costs and speed up flights.
SpaceX regularly hauls cargo to and from the International Space Station for NASA, and is working to develop a capsule that could carry US astronauts to the orbiting lab in another couple of years.
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