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Legs in 2015: SpaceX Falcon's landing put on hold

Stuttering engine means staff can knock off early

NASA and SpaceX have announced that the firm’s fifth ISS resupply mission - which was also the first test of its ground-breaking leggy landing on a floating platform - will be postponed until next year.

The Falcon 9 rocket that boosts the Dragon cargo-craft to the International Space Station was supposed to test its X-wing-aided soft landing as part of the supply launch tomorrow, but the space agency said it was putting it off until 6 January at the earliest.

“This will provide SpaceX engineers time to investigate further some of the issues that arose from the static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on 16 December, and will avoid beta angle constraints for berthing the Dragon cargo ship to the station that exist through the end of the year,” NASA said, adding that it would also allow the crews time off to enjoy the holidays.

A routine pre-launch test firing of the rocket’s engine didn’t go exactly as planned when the engine lit up, but didn’t run throughout the full duration of the test.

As each ISS cargo mission has (quite literally) got a lot riding on it, such as scientific equipment, food, and other supplies for the crew onboard, mission control generally tends to err on the side of caution with each launch.

SpaceX will also be keen on ensuring that the rocket performs as well as it can up to the planned test of its new landing system. The company is hoping that a four-fin guidance apparatus and four landing legs, along with three additional engine burns, will be enough to bring the 14-storey high structure back in for a soft landing on a platform floating in the ocean.

The firm has succeeded in bringing the rocket back twice before, but always just to crash into the sea anyway. This time round, SpaceX wants to land the thing on a 300 by 170 foot autonomous spaceport drone ship as a first step towards a genuinely reusable rocket for space travel.

It has already estimated the chances of the first test succeeding at just 50/50, but it’s confident that whatever it learns in the test will help it get the Falcon 9 in shape by the end of its testing phase. ®

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