EVERYTHING about space flight is superlative.
Even relatively modest rockets are hundreds of feet high. The biggest (the Saturn V, which launched astronauts to the Moon) remains the most powerful vehicle ever built. But space flight is superlatively expensive, too. One reason is that, for all their technological sophistication, rockets are one-shot wonders. After they have fired their engines for a few minutes they are left to fall back to Earth, usually splashing ignominiously into the ocean.
Rocket scientists have therefore long dreamed of making something able to fly more than once. Such a reusable machine, they hope, would slash the cost of getting into space. The only one built so far, America’s space shuttle, proved a dangerous and costly disappointment, killing two of its crews and never coming close to the cost savings its designers had intended. But hope springs eternal, and several of America’s privately run “New Space” firms are planning to try again.
The furthest advanced is SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, an internet mogul. On April 18th it is due to launch one of its Falcon 9 rockets on a cargo-carrying trip to the International Space Station (ISS), something it has done twice before. This time, though, the main story is not the ISS mission, but the modifications the firm has made to the rocket itself.
The most notable are the four landing legs folded up along the side of its first stage. If everything goes to plan, once that stage has finished its job and detached itself from the rest of the rocket, it will fire its engines again. Instead of crashing into the sea, it will make a controlled descent, deploy its legs, slow almost to a stop off the coast of Cape Canaveral, and then drop itself delicately into the drink. Mr Musk gives himself a slightly-less-than-even chance of pulling this off.
Will you walk with me, Grasshopper?
If it does work, though, it will be the most dramatic demonstration yet of technology that the firm has been working on for several years. In 2012 SpaceX began flying an unwieldy-looking legged test rocket called Grasshopper. This was able to hover, manoeuvre around in mid-air, and land itself back on the pad that launched it.
Then, last September, it attempted to organise the controlled descent of a legless first stage. In what the firm’s engineers call a useful failure, the rocket’s engines restarted as planned, but as the stage descended it began spinning, flinging its remaining fuel against the walls of its tanks and starving its motors, causing it to crash.
This week’s test is intended to end up with the rocket in the ocean, chiefly for safety reasons in case something does go wrong. But SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to have the first stage fly all the way back to the pad it was launched from, and to land itself facing upwards. It will then be taken away, serviced, refilled with rocket fuel and readied to fly again. The firm wants, one day, to recover the Falcon’s second stage, too—though the greater altitude and speed the second stage reaches makes this a far tougher proposition.
The Latest on: Reusable rockets
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The Latest on: Reusable rockets
- What's that in the sky? It's a SpaceX rocket, but it sure doesn't look like iton March 20, 2020 at 10:14 am
That's where the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy come into play. SpaceX designed its Falcon family of rockets to be reusable, so after liftoff, the rocket's first stage conducts an aerial somersault, ...
- Rocket launch capabilities progresson March 19, 2020 at 6:00 am
So although current efforts by Australian companies are focused on expendable launch vehicles for small payloads, there is economic benefit in embracing reusable rocket capability in coming years.
- Elon Musk Reveals SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket Malfunctioned During Launchon March 18, 2020 at 8:40 pm
Elon Musk of SpaceX revealed that the Falcon 9 rocket was launched despite a technical issue with one of its engines.
- SpaceX just set a new record by launching the same rocket five timeson March 18, 2020 at 1:40 pm
However, this morning’s launch was special for an entirely different reason. It was the first time a Falcon 9 rocket has been reused five times, and the record-setting mission shows just how powerful ...
- SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites into orbit, misses rocket landingon March 18, 2020 at 6:13 am
SpaceX successfully launched a new batch of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit today (March 18), but was unable to stick a rocket landing at sea to cap the mission.
- SpaceX breaks a Falcon 9 rocket re-use record with successful Starlink launchon March 18, 2020 at 5:36 am
That’s not the only way this mission furthered SpaceX’s reusable rocketry goals: The fairing, or protective covering that encloses the satellite cargo, has also flown previously — on a SpaceX Starlink ...
- The mission to build a reusable launcher for Europeon March 17, 2020 at 7:13 am
The race is on to develop a European reusable rocket that can ensure Europe's autonomous and cost-effective access to space while increasing the sustainability of launches. Launch vehicles—or ...
- Space, Right Here At Home In SoCalon March 16, 2020 at 9:23 pm
The commercial space industry is advancing so rapidly that even new graduates find themselves lagging behind recent real-world advances. USC ‘s Viterbi School of Engineering has two serious rocketry ...
- Watch Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket come together with these behind-the-scenes videoson March 16, 2020 at 2:03 pm
pic.twitter.com/65FAhPBbghMarch 11, 2020 The company is targeting civil, commercial and military customers for this rocket, which will be reusable (to lower launch costs) and is billed as being able ...
- SpaceX will use a different kind of stainless steel for its Starship rocketson March 13, 2020 at 8:10 am
And earlier this week, Musk announced he intends for the new SpaceX factory in Boca Chica, Texas to produce one Starship rocket every 72 hours. That fast rate of Starship production will be required ...
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