By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - Space Exploration Technologies will attempt to land its Falcon 9 rocket on a sea platform following launch on Friday, company officials said, a vital step to prove its precision landing capabilities needed before it can gain a ground landing license.
SpaceX, as the California-based firm is known, has been working on developing technology to return its rockets intact so they can be refurbished and reflown, dramatically cutting costs.
Falcon rockets practiced ocean touchdowns in September 2013 and twice the following year, demonstrating their ability to relight engines, position nose-up and deploy landing legs. But the rockets toppled over and smashed into the sea. “Returning anything from space is a challenge, but returning a Falcon 9 first stage for a precision landing presents a number of additional hurdles,” the company said in a statement.
“At 14 stories tall and traveling upwards of 1,300 miles per second (2,092 km per second), 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,” SpaceX said.
SpaceX put the odds of success at about 50 percent. “Though the probability of success ... is low, we expect to gather critical data to support future landing testing,” it said.
Launch is scheduled for 1:22 p.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
After separating from the capsule and the rocket’s upper-stage booster, the first stage will attempt to slow its fall back through the atmosphere by relighting its Merlin engines three times and positioning itself using steerable fins.
The landing target is a specially made floating platform that will be positioned in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 miles (322 km) northeast of Cape Canaveral.
Though the barge has thrusters for stability it will not be anchored. “Finding the bullseye becomes particularly tricky,” SpaceX said.
(Editing by David Holmes)