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U.S. SpaceX to Launch Ocean-monitoring Satellite
   2016-01-17 19:52:03    Xinhua      Web Editor: Mao Yaqing

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard is shown at Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East in Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, January 16, 2016. [Photo: CFP]

The private spaceflight company SpaceX is to launch the Jason-3 ocean-monitoring satellite carried by a Falcon 9 rocket Sunday and will make another attempt to land its discarded first stage on a uncrewed "drone ship" in the Pacific Ocean.

The launch will take place in Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California. The flight mission features the 180-million-U.S.-dollar Jason-3 satellite, a newest member in a series of Earth-observing satellites designed to provide worldwide observations of global sea levels.

Shortly after liftoff, SpaceX will land the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a floating drone ship in the ocean, with a landing zone of 150 feet (45.7 meters) by 250 feet (76.2 meters).

"The sea state is good for surfing, and a little bit high for landing, but we don't anticipate that's going to be a major problem," Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of mission assurance at SpaceX, told media during a prelaunch press conference on Friday.

The discarded first stage, Koenigsmann noted, is to take place at sea instead of on land for legal and logistical rather than technical reasons, since the company was not given environmental approval.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has named the drone ship Just Read the Instructions, a literary nod to the late Scottish science-fiction author Iain M. Banks.

Local media said Sunday also marks the last launch of the company's Falcon 9 v1.1 generation of boosters. The company now has an upgraded version of the rocket with increased thrust capabilities used in the successful December flight from Florida.

The international mission, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) partnering with NASA, CNES (the French Space Agency) and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, will continue to monitor and precisely measure global sea surface heights, observe the intensification of tropical cyclones and support seasonal and coastal forecasts.

Jason-3 data will also benefit fishery management, marine industries and research into human impacts in the world's oceans. The mission is planned to last at least five years.

SpaceX succeeded in bringing a Falcon 9 first stage back on Dec. 21 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which was considered an important milestone in the space industry and a big step toward making rockets reusable.

On Friday, SpaceX conducted hold-down firing of returned Falcon rocket. Musk tweeted that test data looked OK overall, but an outer engine showed thrust fluctuations, possibly due to debris ingestion.

SpaceX has unsuccessfully tried drone-ship landings twice before, one in January of 2015 which failed because the booster ran out of hydraulic fluid required to direct its descent. The second attempt, made in April of 2015, was closer but ultimately failed when a control valve stopped responding to commands seconds before touchdown.

According to the company, all these attempts are part of the effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, which could significantly cut the cost of spaceflight, paving the way for human exploration.

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