Watch Live as SpaceX Launches Its First Reused Rocket

Tonight at 6:27 p.m. EDT, SpaceX will attempt to launch a satellite into orbit with a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket. It's the first time since the space shuttle program that a “flight-proven” launch system will have sent an object into orbit, and heralds the next era in spaceflight. The launch will happen from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, at launch complex 39A—a location that's no stranger to history, having previously been used for the Apollo moon missions and later the space shuttle. The rocket has 2.5-hour launch window, and will carry an SES-10 communications satellite for SES, a Luxembourg-based satellite company. You can watch it live beginning about 6 p.m.


It was never a given that the 15-year-old SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, would make it as far as it has. Starting an aerospace company to compete with Lockheed and Boeing was always a long shot, but the notion of landing rockets was the stuff of science fiction, let alone landing them vertically on an autonomous barge in the middle of the ocean, following an orbital launch at speeds greater than Mach 5.5. Then SpaceX started doing just that, repeatedly, and today SpaceX has seven previously flown rockets waiting for reuse.

To put this in context, every single orbital, cargo-bearing rocket used before the founding of SpaceX—except for those that blew up on the launch pad or otherwise went horribly wrong—was dropped into the ocean after launch. That's thousands of rockets confounding fish around the world.

For all the commercial and engineering triumphs of Elon Musk’s science fiction proving ground, however, one challenge has remained unattempted: to take one of those rockets used previously on a spaceflight, and to light that candle a second time. This has never been done before. The closest we’ve had was the space shuttle, which isn’t exactly a 1:1 comparison. The latter was one part of a much larger launch system, and at a billion dollars per launch, the shuttle wasn’t exactly a bargain.

Today it costs $62 million to launch a spacecraft with a Falcon 9 rocket. (They put it right there on their website.) Reuse could take launch costs down to as low as $40 million. This might not sound like much of a discount, but ULA charges approximately $109 million to launch something with an Atlas V rocket. For the same price, then, a company could buy two launches from SpaceX, or spend a lot more on research, development, and engineering of a spacecraft or constellation. The lower the barrier of entry to space, the more industries that can get involved.

“When SpaceX successfully launches a rocket with a reused booster, it will signal to mission operators and the financial markets that space industry margins are growing and that launch frequency will increase,” says Amir Blachman, the VP of Strategic Development for Axiom Space, a firm that specializes in building space stations and developing low-Earth orbit. “It is a signal that the upward inflection in space-generated revenue is happening now and not sometime in the far off future.”

Blachman tells mental_floss that this will also accelerate the number of human launches to the International Space Station and beyond. Elon Musk’s long term goal for SpaceX is to colonize Mars. Such a project will require scores of launches to move people and equipment from this planet to the next.


Preparing a Falcon 9 rocket for a second launch involves its partial disassembly, inspection, refurbishment, and, again, inspection. The rocket was put through a static fire test earlier this week, which involves filling it with fuel bringing the rocket engines briefly to full blast, with the rocket still secured to the ground. That the same rocket engine will be used in this launch is yet another achievement. Previously, only the space shuttle main engines were reused. (Today they are being refurbished for use in NASA’s gargantuan Space Launch System rocket.) Otherwise, like the rockets that carry them, the engines generally end up at the bottom of the ocean.

With tonight’s launch, successful or otherwise, and the attendant lessons learned every step of the way, from initial assembly through launch, refurbishment, relaunch, and landing, the company can move rapidly toward total reusability. The long term goal at SpaceX is to engineer rockets that require almost no refurbishment at all before reuse.

As for the rocket’s payload, 32 minutes after launch, it will separate from the Falcon 9 and enter a geostationary transfer orbit. The rocket, meanwhile, will begin its descent and attempt its second landing ever, on “Of Course I Still Love You,” a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. (The barge is named for a starship in the sci-fi novel The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks.) The rocket was previously flown in April 2016, for a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.

science fiction
Why So Many Aliens in Pop Culture Look Familiar

Aliens have been depicted countless times in cinema, from Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902) to James Cameron's Avatar (2009). But despite the advancements in special-effects technology over the past century, most aliens we see on screen still share a lot of similarities—mainly, they look, move, and interact with the world like humans do. Vox explains how the classic alien look came to be in their new video below.

When you picture an alien, you may imagine a being with reptilian skin or big, black eyes, but the basic components of a human body—two arms, two legs, and a head with a face—are likely all there. In reality, finding an intelligent creature that evolved all those same features on a planet millions of light-years away would be an extraordinary coincidence. If alien life does exist, it may not look like anything we've ever seen on Earth.

But when it comes to science fiction, accuracy isn't always the goal. Creating an alien character humans can relate to may take priority. Or, the alien's design may need to work as a suit that can be worn by human performers. The result is a version of extraterrestrial life that looks alien— but not too alien—to movie audiences.

So if aliens probably won't have four limbs, two eyes, and a mouth, what would they look like if we ever met them person? These experts have some theories.

[h/t Vox]


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