Update: The launch date for the next SpaceX mission has been officially set for May 4. The two-hour launch window begins at 1:22 a.m. ET.
Original story: SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket into space on April 8, and after the first stage delivered its payload, the vehicle descended back to Earth and landed on an autonomous drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Now the company hopes to repeat that feat at sea under more dynamically challenging conditions. The launch earlier this month carried a Dragon spacecraft, destined for the International Space Station, about 400km above the surface. With a tentative launch on May 3 during the early morning hours, SpaceX plans to launch a Japanese broadcast satellite into orbit 14,000 miles above the Earth’s surface.
This means that the first stage will accelerate to a greater speed, nearly parallel to the surface and away from the launch site, before releasing the second stage and primary payload. This trajectory will leave the vehicle with much less fuel to stop this horizontal movement and to control the descent to the ship waiting below.
Since launch on April 8, SpaceX has returned the flown first stage, including the nine engines, to Port Canaveral for initial check-outs. Last week, SpaceX moved the rocket stage to its hangar at the Kennedy Space Center for further testing. The company plans to fire its engines at the ground 10 times in a row. “If it looks good, it’s eligible for reuse,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said earlier this month. “We hope to launch it again on an orbital mission, say in June.”
The company must master the art of landing on the ocean, as SpaceX estimates that only half of its launches will have enough fuel to fly back to shore, where it has a ground landing zone, after fulfilling their primary missions. The May 3 launch attempt, with its challenging landing conditions, will go a long way in determining how much SpaceX has learned so far.