Why SpaceX Won't Be Landing Its Rocket Tonight

By Rae Paoletta on at

After a streak of successful launches, SpaceX is looking damn spiffy. While the best part of watching a SpaceX launch is arguably the last leg of the trip, when the Falcon 9 first stage attempts to land softly back on Earth, tonight, SpaceX will be doing something a little more complicated than its typical launch routine—and as a result, it won’t be trying to land at all.

At around 21 minutes past midnight tonight, the aerospace company will launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Pad 39A at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’ll be carrying a 13,400-pound communications satellite from a London-based corporation called Inmarsat-5 F4 into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) some 22,300 miles above Earth’s equator. To a ground observer, a satellite placed in GTO appears stationary, which is useful because it allows any ground-based antennae to remain pointed at a single spot in the sky. GTO is a lot higher and tricker to reach than Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where most of SpaceX’s missions to date have taken place.

As a result, “SpaceX will not attempt to land Falcon 9’s first stage after launch due to mission requirements,” SpaceX said in a statement.

While an evening landing would’ve been nice, GTO endeavours are not easy.

“GTO missions require more velocity than a LEO mission,” Phillip Larson, former Obama space policy advisor and SpaceX official, told Gizmodo. “That means using more fuel and at stage separation the rocket and payload are screaming downrange faster than a LEO-type mission. Combine that with a very heavy payload and that’s part of why this mission is expendable.” In other words, because the payload is so heavy and geostationary orbit is at a much higher altitude, SpaceX has to use pretty much all its fuel to get its satellite in the right spot.

Still, as SpaceX moves toward using more reusable rockets, these sorts of “expandable” endeavours will become less common. Reusable rockets are a major boon for a company like SpaceX, as they may be able to drive down the cost of missions by up to 30 percent.

“Expendable missions will start to become few and far between,” Larson explained. “It’s easy to forget just how recently this was the norm.”

You can check out SpaceX’s launch tonight below. As always, ad astra!


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