Last July, SpaceX soft-landed its Falcon 9 first rocket stage in the Atlantic after successfully delivering six ORBCOMM into orbit.
Now, after completing two successful soft water landings, SpaceX has announced it will attempt a precision landing of a Falcon 9 first stage on a custom built ocean platform known as the autonomous spaceport drone ship. The company said the odds of success are not great; perhaps 50 percent at best, but the test represents the first in a series of similar tests that will ultimately deliver a fully reusable Falcon 9 first stage.
The task is difficult. SpaceX said stabilizing the 14-story tall 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 rocket, coming in from space, will have to land on the 300 x 100-foot (wings extend the width to 170 feet) autonomous spaceport drone ship. The ship has thrusters to help keep it in place, but it isn't anchored. During the previous ocean landing attempts, landing accuracy was only 10 km. For this test, the SpaceX team is targeting 10 meters.
The SpaceX announcement boasted, “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. 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. Over the next year, SpaceX has at least a dozen launches planned with a number of additional testing opportunities. Given what we know today, we believe it is quite likely that with one of those flights we will not only be able to land a Falcon 9 first stage, but also re-fly.”