SpaceX to land rocket on drone barge. Is that a big deal?

SpaceX will attempt to land a rocket on a drone barge for the third time. Following the historic success of the rocket company's successful landing of a Falcon 9 rocket on land, expectations are high for Sunday's water attempt.

Joe Skipper/Reuters/File
The first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket returns to land in a time exposure at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, on the launcher's first mission since a June failure, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in this December 21, 2015, file photo. SpaceX will now attempt to land a rocket successfully at sea.

SpaceX will make a third attempt to safely land a rocket on a drone ship Sunday.

SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by CEO Elon Musk, made history in December after successfully landing a Falcon 9 rocket stage on land. The company will attempt to replicate the landing again Sunday, but this time at sea using a drone barge as a moveable platform.

SpaceX has tried to land a rocket on an ocean-going vessel previously, in January and April of last year, but both landings resulted in damage to the rocket. The rocket company views the ability to land at sea as vital to its reusable rocket business model. 

At stake for the Sunday landing – and the ability to land a reusable rocket at sea – is the economic viability of a commercial space company.

"Driving down the cost of the launch, which is the single greatest barrier to entry for the startups and the investors ... makes (space startups) much more viable," Jeff Matthews, director of venture strategy and research at the Space Frontier Foundation, a space advocacy nonprofit, told Reuters.

The cost of launching rockets into space is prohibitively expensive. NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavor cost $1.7 billion to build and the average cost to launch a Space Shuttle was $450 million per mission, according to NASA. The program was canceled in 2008.

SpaceX, which operates missions to take supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) and launches private satellites into orbit, has already lowered the cost considerably. As of 2016, SpaceX is marketing a Falcon 9 launch for price tag of $61.2 million. The soon to be Falcon Heavy launches will cost $90 million. Mr. Musk predicted in a press release that effectively reusing rockets will lower the cost of a space mission by “as much as a factor of a hundred.”

For many space startup companies seeking to create a viable business, lowering the price could be vital for business.

Spire, a startup that builds nano-satellites and aims to have 100 in orbit, replaces satellites every two years at a cost of $250,000 per launch.

Chris Wake, the COO of Spire, told Reuters, “Even if you cut that by a quarter or in half, that’s a massive savings.”

“It’s not going to have an effect tomorrow,” Will Marshall, the CEO and cofounder of Planet Labs, which builds small earth-imaging satellites, told Reuters. But “there is no question this helps companies like ourselves and the growing space tech ecosystem.”

With the successful landing of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket in December, SpaceX has proven the viability of launching and landing a space-destined craft. Being able to replicate the landing on its drone ship will allow SpaceX to have a larger area for landings, as the drone ship can move into the required position, and offer a greater degree of safety than landings on land, according to Bloomberg.

Jeff Bezos' spacecraft company Blue Origins is also working on creating a reusable rocket. The spacecraft startup successfully landed a rocket from suborbital flight in November.

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