It's become routine to see a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blast off from Cape Canveral in Florida and then watch the first-stage booster come back for a soft landing aboard an autonomous droneship far off shore in the Atlantic Ocean. But the company's next mission features the rare return of a Falcon 9 directly to dry land.
A Falcon 9 first stage seen at Cape Canaveral's Landing Zone 1. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX will launch the Argentinean Earth-observing satellite Saocom 1B from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Thursday evening. Two smaller spacecraft, a commercial radar satellite called Sequoia and a weather data satellite dubbed Gnomes-1, will also be along for the ride. SpaceX has only made one other ground pad landing in the past 12 months, as part of a resupply mission to the International Space Station on March 7. Multiple factors factor into whether SpaceX lands ashore or on a droneship, a critical one being the trajectory of the flight and how far the rocket is from the coast once it's separated from the second-stage rocket.
Saocom 1B will take off and fly on a polar trajectory toward the South Pole. After launch, the Falcon 9 will skirt the coast of Florida, making it possible to attempt the ground pad landing. This will mark the first orbital launch from Florida to use this southern polar corridor since 1960. The SpaceX launch of the companion satellite Saocom 1A in 2018 also featured a ground pad landing, but at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. This Thursday's launch was also initially set to take place from the West Coast, but eventually was moved to Florida and delayed thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Liftoff is currently set for 7:19pm EDT Thursday and we should see the first-stage rocket return to Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) , which is only about 7 miles from the launch pad, a little less than 10 minutes after blast-off.
As usual, once a livestream feed becomes available we'll embed it here, where you can return and tune in about 15 minutes before launch.