Speed, Not Darkness, Is the Challenge for SpaceX Ahead of Its Night Droneship Attempt

It's going a lot farther and it'll be coming in hot.


There wasn’t much time to celebrate after SpaceX landed its Falcon 9 back on the droneship on April 8, because for its next attempt, Elon Musk’s space company will not only have to repeat the feat, but do it with a faster-descending rocket.

When the launch window opens at 1:21 a.m. Eastern on Friday, SpaceX will attempt to answer that question — this time under a blanket of stars and after traveling a longer distance. (The launch was originally planned for Thursday at the same time, but inclement weather caused a delay of 24 hours). Because the rocket and droneship are largely robotic, the cover of night doesn’t pose any greater challenge.

The Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida and take a Japanese broadcasting satellite into geostationary orbit. That’s farther than last month’s launch into lower Earth orbit, which is around 250 miles from Earth. This means less landing fuel and a faster descent toward the 100-foot-wide floating barge, a.k.a. the “droneship” named Of Course I Still Love You, off the east coast of Florida.

The droneship


If SpaceX is successful, it’s a big step toward proving the validity of the Falcon 9’s launch-and-land capabilities. Geostationary orbit (also called geosynchronous) is around 22,236 miles from the surface of the Earth’s equator. It’s an ideal spot for communication and weather satellites because satellites in geostationary orbit the Earth at roughly the same speed as the Earth rotates, keeping the satellite roughly above the same terrestrial location.

SpaceX has historically been conservative with the odds of a successful landing for these sorts of Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) missions because of the speed and distance involved. In February, the Falcon 9 “landed hard” when returning to earth after a GTO mission, but it was no surprise: “Given this mission’s unique GTO profile, a successful landing is not expected,” SpaceX announced in its mission overview back then.

Can it doe this again, but at night and coming in much faster?


If you don’t mind staying up late, you can watch the launch and — although SpaceX’s record of posting video of landing attempts has been spotty — the landing attempt on the SpaceX Webcast, which is also below: