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The first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket descends toward a drone ship during SpaceX’s April landing try in the Atlantic. The attempt was unsuccessful, but SpaceX plans to try again in the Pacific on Jan. 17. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is planning something completely different for its next rocket-landing trick: After launching the U.S.-European Jason 3 satellite on a Falcon 9, it’ll have the first-stage booster fly itself back and try to touch down on a drone ship off California’s coast.

Well, maybe it’s not completely different: The attempt, scheduled for Jan. 17, follows up on last month’s spectacularly successful first-stage landing in Cape Canaveral, Fla. But this could be the first successful at-sea retro rocket landing in history, and the first West Coast rocket recovery.

Landing the booster would be considered a bonus rather than a requirement for mission success. The main objective is to send Jason 3 into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, adding it to a series of sea-observing satellites.

Jason 3 is designed to measure the height of the sea surface, using a radar altimeter, a microwave radiometer and other experiments. The satellite data should provide scientists with deep insights into ocean circulation, changes in sea level and climate phenomena like the El Nino that’s stirring up shifts in this winter’s weather pattern.

Partners in the $340 million mission include NASA, the French space agency CNES, Eumetsat and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Jason 3 is expected to provide data for at least three to five years, but outside the scientific community, the main focus is likely to be on the first 10 minutes after this month’s launch. That’s the rough time frame for the landing attempt.

A static-fire engine test is scheduled on Monday, and the first opportunity for launch comes at 10:42 a.m. PT Jan. 17. A backup launch window is available the following day. This would be the first orbital rocket launch of the year from U.S. soil, and the second SpaceX launch since a Falcon 9 failure last June forced a months-long hiatus.

If all goes as planned, the Falcon 9’s second stage and payload will separate from the first stage and head higher into orbit a few minutes after liftoff. Meanwhile, the first stage will fire its engines for a series of maneuvers that will bring it down from supersonic speeds to a soft landing on an autonomous spaceport drone ship in the Pacific.

SpaceX says the ship has been christened “Just Read the Instructions.” That represents the recycling of a name that SpaceX founder Elon Musk selected to pay tribute to the sentient starships from Iain M. Banks’ science-fiction novels.

Landing the booster on “Just Read the Instructions” could be more difficult than last month’s land-based touchdown. The custom-built drone ship is equipped with underwater thrusters to stabilize the platform in heavy seas. Nevertheless, it’s tricky to land what’s basically a 156-foot-tall tower on a ship. SpaceX tried it twice last year after Florida launches, but both attempts fell short.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket booster sits in a Florida hangar after its historic landing. (Credit: SpaceX)

The Falcon 9’s hardware and software have been fine-tuned after each attempt, and last month’s success was a good omen for this month’s try. Last week, Musk reported that the recovered booster showed no signs of damage. It’s currently sitting in a Cape Canaveral hangar, and Musk said the rocket is “ready to fire again” during a future ground test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The point of the rocket recovery effort is to reuse the boosters and bring the cost of access to space down to as little as 1 percent of what it is today. That could open the way for affordable trips to Mars, which fits in with Musk’s vision of making humanity a multiplanet species.

Don’t expect the booster that was landed next month to go back into space, however: Musk said it will eventually be put on display here on Earth because of its historical significance.

A tip o’ the hat to independent space consultant Charles Lurio, who mentioned SpaceX’s plans for an at-sea landing attempt in a tweet on Thursday.

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