In a potentially game-changing development for space travel, it has emerged that the booster rocket which will launch the next supply capsule to the International Space Station will attempt to make a soft hovering landing after it falls back to Earth.
Mounting landing legs (~60 ft span) to Falcon 9 for next month's Space Station servicing flight pic.twitter.com/zyfazr2BB2— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 24, 2014
The rocket, an upgraded Falcon 9 from upstart launch firm SpaceX, has been fitted with landing legs but in this initial trial will come down out at sea in case the descent doesn't go as planned.
"F9 [rockets] will continue to land in the ocean until we prove precision control," tweeted SpaceX chief and famed tech biz visionary Elon Musk at the weekend, having posted a picture of the landing-leg-equipped rocket stage.
Musk and SpaceX have long planned to make the company's first-stage rockets come down to a soft landing ashore after hurling the rest of the stack on its way. The expensive first stage could then be checked out, refuelled and used again rather than being tossed away into the ocean as has been the norm ever since humanity began reaching out into space*.
To this end, SpaceX has been carrying out increasingly ambitious hovering flights with its "Grasshopper" test vehicle, basically a Falcon 9 fuel tank with a rocket motor and landing gear attached. This has shown that a Falcon first stage is capable of setting down accurately on a pad starting from a slow-moving condition in the lower atmosphere.
What's less clear is that a Falcon first stage, having soared out of most of the atmosphere and achieved huge hypersonic speeds to send its burden on its way, can then brake and re-enter under control and get itself down to low subsonic speed and enter the hover reasonably close to a designated landing point.