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The Falcon 9 rocket booster that carried CRS-8 lands on a SpaceX floating droneship.
SpaceX
Coming in for a landing.

Watch SpaceX try to launch and recover its fifth reusable rocket

By Tim Fernholz

SpaceX aims to launch and recover yet another rocket this morning, with the goal of placing two new communications satellites into orbit high above the earth.

Update: Elon Musk’s rocket company completed its sixth launch this year at 10:29 am EST and deployed its two satellites, but failed to successfully recover the first stage of the rocket. It suffered from “RUD” during a landing attempt, according to Musk.

You can watch a video of the flight here. Here are three stories behind the mission:

Strange bedfellows

The tightly-knit space business makes lots of them, and today’s flight is no exception. The two satellites that SpaceX is carrying were built by Boeing, SpaceX’s rival in the race to be the first private company to carry humans in space. They are the latest iteration in Boeing’s satellite platform, boasting all-electric ion engines to move them in space and enough power to run 48 transponders at 36,000 kilometers above earth for 15 years, all while still being light enough to fit two on a single rocket. While SpaceX is competing with Boeing in the rocket business, it’s clear that SpaceX’s nascent satellite manufacturing plans have a ways to go.

Touchdown!

SpaceX will once again attempt to land its rocket on a floating droneship in the Atlantic named ”Of course I still love you.” It’s all part of the company’s scheme to reuse the first stages of its rocket boosters, which include expensive fuel tanks, guidance systems and nine Merlin rocket engines. If this system can be flown back to Earth rather than discarded in space, SpaceX could save customers 30% on future launches.

SpaceX has cautioned that the likelihood of successfully retrieving its rocket is lower on this mission, as the launch is destined for Geostationary Transfer Orbit in a very high-altitude and high-velocity maneuver. But it made the same warning about its last two launches, both of which landed successfully. Is there room for one more in the rocket storage hall?

SpaceX
Four lightly-used rockets.

Launch, manifest

SpaceX’s reusable rocket schemes, and indeed, its whole business plan, are only feasible because it aims to compete for more than just the NASA and military market. Reusable rockets only make sense with lots of demand for regular launches.

Of SpaceX’s previous five launches this year, three were for private satellite communications companies (JSat, Thaicom and SES). Only two were government contracts: a NASA science mission (Jason-3) and a flight to re-supply the International Space Station (CRS-8). Of the four 2016 launches performed by United Launch Alliance—a Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture that is SpaceX’s biggest domestic rival—all were government contracts. That’s one reason SpaceX is now on track to launch more rockets in a calendar year than ULA, for the first time ever.

Tim Fernholz
Reporter
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