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5 Ways SpaceX Wants to Step Up Its Rocket Game

By Daniel Sparks - Feb 6, 2016 at 10:30AM

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Here's a close look at SpaceX plans to reuse its Falcon 9, launch bigger rockets, and more.

Following several failed landing attempts for its Falcon 9 rocket, along with one successful landing last December, SpaceX has plenty of data from its recent launches to make improvements and dream bigger. Building on its progress in 2015, and looking forward to its busy launch schedule in 2016, SpaceX is aiming to hit some key milestones during the year.

Rendering of Falcon Heavy. Image source: SpaceX.

Here are five ways the private U.S. space company plans to take things to the next level in 2016.

1. Modify the Falcon 9. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said on Wednesday (via The Verge) that the company plans to modify future versions of its Falcon 9 rocket based on what it learned from inspecting the Falcon 9 it landed in December. The modifications will make it "even more robust," she said.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that inspecting its Falcon 9 rockets after they land could help the company identify where the rocket is over and under strengthened, and find ways to make modifications. These modifications may play a key role in helping SpaceX make progress toward reducing costs involved with preparing a used rocket for reuse.

2. Go beyond the Falcon-Dragon series. While touring Hong Kong recently, Musk said SpaceX hopes to describe the architecture for its next generation rocket and spacecraft beyond its current Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon crew ship "later this year." He is planning to reveal the architecture at the annual International Astronautical Congress event -- a big international space event.

3. Land rockets 70% of the time. For the rest of the year, Musk believes SpaceX can land the Falcon 9 70% of the time.

This would be a huge improvement from its recent landing track record today. Last year, SpaceX succeeded once and failed twice when trying to land the Falcon 9. And it failed again in January.

Falcon 9 as it lands successfully after returning from delivering a payload into space. Image source: SpaceX.

Notably, SpaceX still considers these landing attempts "experimental," so a failed attempt isn't necessarily a failed mission.

Looking out a bit further, Musk wants to improve its rate of successful landings to 90% in 2017.

4. Reuse a rocket. Perhaps one of the most significant milestones SpaceX wants to achieve during 2016 is to actually reuse one of its landed rockets. Successfully doing so would prove that the company may soon be able to operate at a much lower cost structure as it saves on manufacturing costs, and works toward reusing rockets regularly.

But SpaceX will need to land another rocket before it can actually reuse one. The company has already said it won't be reusing its first landed Falcon 9, opting to keep it grounded as a form of memorabilia.

5. Launch Falcon Heavy. Imagine three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, launching into space, turning around, and each attempting to land on their own. That's the elementary way to describe SpaceX' Falcon Heavy, which will be the world's most powerful operational rocket by a factor of two when it launches. Falcon Heavy is slated for its first launch attempt later this year. A successful Falcon Heavy launch would dramatically expand SpaceX's capabilities.

It's going to be an exciting year with lots of action. Chances are, there will be a range of successful launches, potentially an explosion during a landing attempt, and -- hopefully -- a handful of successfully landed Falcon 9s.

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