Published: Wed, March 29, 2017
Science | By Kerry Wheeler

Here's why SpaceX's rocket launch this week is a big freaking deal

Here's why SpaceX's rocket launch this week is a big freaking deal

The unmanned Falcon 9, which is a model created to be reused repeatedly to cut down launch costs, will be carrying an SES-10 satellite for coverage over Latin America, according to satellite company SES. The company, founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002, has landed Falcon 9 first stages during eight different orbital missions, with the latest such success coming last month.

After the CRS-8 booster was recovered in 2016, SpaceX test-fired it back on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

Landing rockets back on Earth after using them for transport to space is pretty impressive on its own, but it's not worth much if those same rockets don't go back to space. Indeed, the Falcon 9 rocket set to be launched is the same that was used in the company's historic mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

SES has some history with SpaceX.

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This launching event is significant for SpaceX which plans to relaunch its spaceships several times, reusing them to reduce the costs and offer them more opportunities for space exploration and transportation.

SES has been very vocal about its desire to be the first company to launch on a landed rocket, and announced in August that it would be the one to fly on this inaugural mission. "So when we say "reusable rockets", ultimately, what the industry is building toward is a completely reusable rocket, so we'd reuse the first stage, the second stage, etc".

SES chief technology officer Martin Halliwell said he has little worry about this week's launch, scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday. Right now, a new Falcon 9 costs around $60 million, but with a reusable booster, SpaceX hopes that the cost will come down to around $40 million. The rocket's engines and tanks are the most expensive part of the vehicle to make, whereas refueling and refurbishing the vehicle could cost as little as a few million dollars.

SES has contracted SpaceX to launch four satellites, SES-10 targeted for Thursday from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A on the used booster, SES-11, SES-16 and SES-14. But rockets lofting payloads to distant orbits generally don't have enough fuel left to make it all the way back to terra firma, so they land on autonomous "drone ships" at sea. After a series of landing attempts that ended in spectacular fireballs, the company successfully stuck a booster recovery at Cape Canaveral in December 2015. And ultimately, if we're going to send loads of humans live on Mars, as Elon Musk clearly intends to, we need much cheaper systems for launching payloads into orbit. "So in terms of the investment required, I would think it would be the most straightforward and the lowest investment". So far there's a 70 percent chance that weather conditions will be favorable, according Patrick Air Force Base.

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