Elon Musk's SpaceX team is going to make another attempt at landing a Falcon rocket at sea, despite already proving their point on land.
Lars Blackmore, principal rocket landing engineer for SpaceX, confirmed on Twitter that the Musketeers will be going for a water landing after the next Falcon launch, which is currently scheduled to fly on January 17. SpaceX has tried ocean platform landings unsuccessfully in the past, but managed to put the rocket down on land last month.
The launch will be delivering NASA's Jason-3 satellite into orbit. The hardware will orbit the Earth, mapping the surface of the planet's oceans with an accuracy of 2.5cm, to monitor both sea level rises and storm conditions.
Once the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket has detached its payload, it will perform a 180-degree turn and fire up again to slow down and fall back to Earth. The SpaceX platform, one of two floating landing sites the firm has prepared, will be in position to receive the rocket on its return.
It's a very high-risk maneuver; the sea is inherently unstable and any movement could topple the rocket. The landing barge uses four thrusters to maintain position and is partially submerged for stability, but it's still a far trickier proposition than landing on land.
Which raises the question: why is SpaceX doing it? After all, the firm has permission to land on solid ground now, so there's no need for the landing platform that was used in earlier landing attempts.
Firstly, it's a hardware issue. The next launch uses one of SpaceX's older version 1.1 Falcon 9 rockets, rather than the upgraded system with a larger fuel tank and colder, more compressed, oxygen-storage model that landed last month.
The launch is also taking place in California, rather than Florida. This means the rocket can't do the most efficient eastward route, since it would take it over heavily populated areas.
Cracking water landings will give the rocket team much more flexibility as to where and when they can land. At the moment, landings require a certain amount of extra fuel that can't be used for the launch, and rather than bringing the rocket back to a fixed point, a reliable sea-borne spot would allow for more economical flights.
But there may be something more basic involved. Musk has a flare for the spectacular – he has promised a water landing and aims to deliver. ®