On Friday, SpaceX will attempt to land its Falcon 9 rocket on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean after its next flight into space.
The feat is not impossible, but according to the company, chances of a successful landing are only 50 percent.
That probably does not seem like an attempt is even worth the bother, but the Falcon 9 rocket is reusable, meaning that once it's working correctly and can stick a landing, it will be the first of its kind.
At present, rockets burn up in Earth's atmosphere. The Falcon 9's design, though, prevents that, making it the world's first reusable rocket. This would save a lot of money on space exploration missions.
"A fully and rapidly reusable rocket-which has never been done before-is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access," writes SpaceX on its website. "While most rockets are designed to burn up on reentry, SpaceX is building rockets that not only withstand reentry, but also land safely on Earth to be refueled and fly again."
The Falcon 9 has already made two successful water landings, but Friday's landing is different. SpaceX built a special barge for the event, called the autonomous spaceport drone ship. Landing a rocket on such a ship, which is not anchored, is a major challenge.
"Returning anything from space is a challenge, but returning a Falcon 9 first stage for a precision landing presents a number of additional hurdles," SpaceX writes. "At 14 stories tall and traveling upwards of 1300 m/s (nearly 1 mi/s), stabilizing the Falcon 9 first stage for reentry is like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm."
The landing goes something like this: after launch, the Falcon 9 re-lights its engines and goes through a series of three burns that stabilize the rocket and slow it down. The rocket's legs come down for the final burn, which slows the rocket down to about 2 miles per second. Fins placed around the Falcon 9 help steer it towards its goal.
This is the first time a test like this, landing a rocket on an ocean platform, has ever been attempted. Even if the rocket misses its target, SpaceX still makes history.
Even though the odds are low that the Falcon 9 will land where intended, the test will give SpaceX critical information about how to further proceed. Many more tests will follow.
[Photo Credit: SpaceX]