Can SpaceX Successfully Land a Rocket on a Barge Off California Coast?

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Elon Musk’s ambitions to corner the space cargo market via reusable rockets will stand a crucial test Sunday morning, when SpaceX engineers will attempt to guide a Falcon 9 rocket back to a ship off the Southern California coast.

Neither of the two previous attempts to stick a sea landing has succeeded, although the company brought a Falcon rocket stage back to terra firma at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Dec. 21 in what many hailed as an engineering feat.

Sunday’s effort is far more difficult. The full round trip has been compared to vaulting a pencil over the Empire State building, then getting it to come back and land on its eraser atop a floating target smaller than a shoe box, and not tip over.

The Falcon 9 two-stage rocket is slated to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at about 10:42 a.m., carrying a 1,157-pound Earth-observing satellite for U.S. and French government agencies. Its landing, off San Pedro a few minutes later, will be difficult to see with the naked eye, according to the company.

SpaceX has yet to reuse a rocket stage, a key element in bringing the cost per launch to a level where the Hawthorne-based company could dominate the market for delivering cargo and people to space.

Sunday’s launch and landing of a fresh rocket — SpaceX is saving the Dec. 21 stage for posterity — nonetheless would help burnish Musk’s corporate image with a second consecutive milestone, after a spectacular explosion of a Falcon 9 last June, said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for Teal Group Corp., a defense and aerospace analysis company based in Fairfax, Va.

“If you have a rocket that’s now able to land on a moving barge, it shows that your control of the vehicle is excellent,” Caceres said. “The real cost benefits will be from re-using the hardware.”

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SOURCE: LA Times, Geoffrey Mohan