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SpaceX hopes to make history again on Jan. 17 by landing a Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship at sea after launching a payload into orbit. SpaceX confirmed to NBC News that it would be making the attempt; the news was earlier reported by space journalist Charles Lurio on Twitter.
This launch will take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying NASA's Jason-3 satellite. Jason-3 carries instruments to monitor the ocean's surface, collecting information about circulation patterns and perhaps rising sea levels.
The commercial spaceflight company succeeded Dec. 21 in making its first-stage rocket, which is usually discarded after reaching space, return safely to Earth and land upright at a predetermined location nears its launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
A previous attempt in January 2015 to land a Falcon 9 on a "drone ship" — an automated seagoing landing platform — nearly succeeded, but a last-minute failure saw the rocket topple over and explode in spectacular fashion.
Having a mobile landing platform means more flexibility in when and how launches can proceed — it's not always convenient or possible for a rocket to return to a static site like a launch facility or other suitably flat, empty space. A mobile landing site could conceivably be placed where it is safest or most fuel-efficient for the rocket to come down.
This will not be the exact same rocket the company launched last month — though SpaceX founder Elon Musk is confident that would be just fine.
"I think we'll probably keep this one on the ground because it's quite unique, it's the first one we brought back," Musk said in a conference call following December's successful landing. The company will "just confirm through tests that it could fly again and then put it somewhere to display."