SpaceX launches its 11th used Falcon 9 rocket on trip to the International Space Station

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Update April 2nd, 4:50PM ET: SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket on time today, which then deployed the company’s Dragon capsule into orbit. This marks the 11th mission in which SpaceX has flown a rocket that has already gone to space and back.

Just three days after sending 10 communications satellites into orbit from California, SpaceX is launching again, this time out of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The company is launching one of its previously flown Falcon 9 rockets, which will send up 5,800 pounds of supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station. That cargo will be riding atop the rocket inside one of SpaceX’s Dragon capsules — which flew to the ISS once before, too.

This is the second time NASA is relying on a used Falcon 9 rocket to get equipment to the space station, and it’s the third time a used Dragon cargo capsule will carry supplies to the ISS, as well. But despite the recycled hardware of today’s mission, SpaceX won’t be landing its Falcon 9 after launch today. SpaceX indicated that the decision to skip a landing had to do with the fact that this particular Falcon 9 has already flown once before for another resupply mission to the space station in August. So, the company decided it would be better to collect data on this trip during the rocket’s fall and landing in the ocean than to attempt a full recovery.

“This one seemed like a really good opportunity to fly a trajectory a little bit out more towards the limits,” Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said during a press briefing about the mission yesterday. “And that way, our engineers can collect additional data, not only during reentry but during landing that will be useful for the future.”

In fact, today’s flight marks the fourth SpaceX mission in a row that won’t attempt a recovery of the vehicle. The company is in the middle of transitioning to the last version of its Falcon 9 rocket, called Block 5, which will make it easier to reuse the vehicles in the future. Block 5 will include a number of upgrades to the rocket, such as higher performing engines, titanium grid fins, and retractable landing legs. Such changes will facilitate rapid reuse, according to the company. The first Block 5 rocket is slated to launch in late April, sending up a communications satellite for Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, today’s mission is focused on simply getting cargo to space. On board the Dragon capsule are a number of new technologies for the ISS, including an instrument that will sit on the outside of the station to analyze thunderstorms on Earth and a research platform that will expose objects like tissues and plants to artificial gravity. Oh, and a new zero-G printer from HP is going up, as well. Once the Falcon 9 launches, the Dragon capsule will stay in orbit and creep closer to the ISS, before meeting up with the station Early Wednesday morning. After all of its supplies are unloaded, the capsule will remain attached for about 30 days.


Robonaut 2, before its legs were attached.
Image: NASA

The Dragon capsule is also tasked with taking some precious cargo back to Earth once its time at the space station is over. When the capsule leaves in May, it will have NASA’s old Robonaut 2 on board, a humanoid robot that’s been on the ISS since 2011. Robonaut 2 is in desperate need of repairs back on Earth; it hasn’t been working since astronauts tried attaching legs to the robot back in 2014. NASA plans to get Robonaut 2 working again and then relaunch it to the space station in the future.

Today’s Falcon 9 launch is scheduled to take off at exactly 4:30PM ET. The flight has an instantaneous launch window, so the rocket has to lift off at that time or wait until tomorrow. SpaceX has a backup launch date on Tuesday at 4:08PM ET in case that happens. Today’s weather seems like it will cooperate for a flight; there’s an 80 percent chance that conditions will be favorable for launch, with the possibility of some rain and cumulus clouds.

NASA plans to begin live coverage of the launch at 4PM ET, and SpaceX’s coverage will begin about 20 minutes before takeoff at 4:10PM ET. So you’ll have multiple viewing options to see this Falcon 9 get to space this afternoon.



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