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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.

HISTORY MADE

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.

THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A ROCKET

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.

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The Fascinating Device Astronauts Use to Weigh Themselves in Space

Most every scale on Earth, from the kind bakers use to measure ingredients to those doctors use to weigh patients, depends on gravity to function. Weight, after all, is just the mass of an object times the acceleration of gravity that’s pushing it toward Earth. That means astronauts have to use unconventional tools when recording changes to their bodies in space, as SciShow explains in the video below.

While weight as we know it technically doesn’t exist in zero-gravity conditions, mass does. Living in space can have drastic effects on a person’s body, and measuring mass is one way to keep track of these changes.

In place of a scale, NASA astronauts use something called a Space Linear Acceleration Mass Measurement Device (SLAMMD) to “weigh” themselves. Once they mount the pogo stick-like contraption it moves them a meter using a built-in spring. Heavier passengers take longer to drag, while a SLAMMD with no passenger at all takes the least time to move. Using the amount of time it takes to cover a meter, the machine can calculate the mass of the person riding it.

Measuring weight isn’t the only everyday activity that’s complicated in space. Astronauts have been forced to develop clever ways to brush their teeth, clip their nails, and even sleep without gravity.

[h/t SciShow]

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Watch Astronauts Assemble Pizza in Space
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Most everyone enjoys a good pizza party: Even astronauts living aboard the International Space Station.

As this video from NASA shows, assembling pizza in zero gravity is not only possible, it also has delicious results. The inspiration for the pizza feast came from Paolo Nespoli, an Italian astronaut who was craving one of his home country’s national dishes while working on the ISS. NASA’s program manager for the space station, Kirk Shireman, sympathized with his colleague and ordered pizzas to be delivered to the station.

NASA took a little longer responding to the request than your typical corner pizzeria might. The pizzas were delivered via the Orbital ATK capsule, and once they arrived, the ingredients had to be assembled by hand. The components didn’t differ too much from regular pizzas on Earth: Flatbread, tomato sauce, and cheese served as the base, and pepperoni, pesto, olives, and anchovy paste made up the toppings. Before heating them up, the astronauts had some fun with their creations, twirling them around like "flying saucers of the edible kind,” according to astronaut Randy Bresnik.

In case the pizza party wasn’t already a success, it also coincided with movie night on the International Space Station.

[h/t KHQ Q6]

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