SpaceX is working hard to make its rockets land-able and, by extension, reusable. Now, it plans to try and land its Falcon 9 craft on this barge.
The company, owned by the ever-interesting Elon Musk, has landed on water from altitude before and firm ground in tests. But landing from altitude on a floating platform, which won't be tethered to anything, presents a challenge: the eventual landing spot (referred to as the autonomous spaceport drone by SpaceX but known to others as a, err, barge to most) measures 90 metres by 30 metres. The rocket is 20 metres wide. SpaceX ackowledges that, pegging their chances of success at around 50 per cent "at best". It goes on to describe the size of the challenge:
At 14 stories tall and traveling upwards of 1300 m/s (nearly 1 mi/s), stabilizing the Falcon 9 first stage for reentry is like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm.
But a challenge is a challenge, and in this case it will at least be mercifully broken down to make it at least vaguely plausible. First, a boostback burn will get the craft headed in the right direction; a second 'supersonic retro propulsion' will slow the rocket to 250 metres per second; and a final landing burn will slow it to about two metres per second.
Chief among the mechanisms to the make the final landing smooth are SpaceX's hypersonic grid fins, which finely control the direction of the Falcon 9 before it bumps down on Earth. Good luck, SpaceX — this time, it sounds like you might need it. [SpaceX via Engadget]