Previous: Wernher von Braun: From Nazis to NASA
Next: The Black Hole at the Center of Our Galaxy: Don't Panic!



View count:243,976
Last sync:2020-11-23 16:30
Update: SpaceX has rescheduled the Falcon 9 launch on January, 6th 2015.

SciShow Space walks you through this week’s upcoming nail-biter: SpaceX’s attempt to land a reusable rocket on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean.

Hosted by: Hank Green
Like SciShow? Want to help support us, and also get things to put on your walls, cover your torso and hold your liquids? Check out our awesome products over at DFTBA Records:

Or help support us by subscribing to our page on Subbable:
Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet?

Thanks Tank Tumblr:



Private space flight has had kind of a bad year between the failure of Orbital Science's cargo rocket in Virginia and the tragic loss of Spaceship 2's pilot Michael Alsbury. But leave it to our not so secret brain-crush Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX, to take private space exploration to a whole new level. The new level in this case being the surface of the ocean.

On Friday December 19th SpaceX will launch one of it's Falcon 9 rockets in to space. Loaded with more than 1,500 kilograms of supplies and experiments for the International Space Station. But after the first few minutes of flight instead of just crashing back to Earth like it usually does, the rocket first stage will gently touch down on a platform floating in the Atlantic Ocean. At least that's the plan.

Getting something in to orbit it's complicated so the Falcon 9 launch system uses two main stages. The first stage is the most powerful one with nine engines burning liquid oxygen and kerosene for up to three minutes. Then so that it doesn't have to drag all that extra mass in to orbit, it separates and the second stage takes over with just one engine propelling the cargo into orbit. Normally rockets like these are a one time use kind of deal and each one costs about 100 million dollars. Since you have to build a new one every time you want to get off the planet, space travel is really really expensive. It costs more than 20,000 dollars for every kilogram of cargo you carry in to orbit. So in 2011 Musk announced his company's goal to build a reusable rocket that would make space travel less costly. Eventually the company plans to develop a whole system that is entirely reusable but it's focusing on the first stage for now. 

The plan for this week's mission is to have some fuel remaining in the tank the first stage when it separates. Then it'll fire three of its nine engines to slow itself down and a control system will be deployed with special grid fins to help prevent the rocket from going in to a spin and keep the engines pointing in the right direction. Once it gets close to the landing platform four landing legs will deploy and the central engine will fire letting it basically settle in to a soft landing as opposed to the usual hard landing where everything gets blown to bits.

This system was first tested over land in a specially designed rocket called the Grasshopper. In 2012 and 13 the Grasshopper made eight hops reaching altitudes of up to 744 meters and landing safely on the ground each time. The concept proved promising but still needed to be tried on a Falcon 9 during an actual launch of which it was tested over the ocean three times. The plan was for the rocket to make a soft landing right on the surface of the ocean and then tip over so that it would float on the water horizontally. In the first test in September 2013 the rocket went in to a spin and the engines failed. During the next two tries, in April and July of 2014, the system succeed in slowing the first stage down before it hit the water. But it turns out that the Atlantic Ocean isn't the most friendly place to land. 

During the first test the rocket was torn apart by rough seas. In the second, it hit the water too hard when it tipped over and in the words of Elon Musk went kaboom. But this Friday's test will be different because the rocket won't be landing in the water exactly. Instead SpaceX has built a landing platform for it with the totally boss name of Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship. Keeping this platform in one place is going to be tricky. So with GPS as it's guide, the drone ship will use four thrusters to make sure that it doesn't move more than 3 meters, even during a storm. That's important because at 91 by 52 meters, the platform isn't much bigger than the rocket itself. 

Since this is the first test of its kind, SpaceX says that there is a high chance of failure but you gotta give them credit for even getting this far. If it works, we'll be well on our way to reusable rockets and much more accessible space travel. If not, we'll still be one step closer. 

Thanks for watching this SciShow Space News. If you want to keep exploring the universe with us you can go to and subscribe.