SpaceX is all set for its mission to the International Space Station on March 30th. If all goes to the plan, the company hopes that the Falcon 9 rocket will fire its engines for a second time, allowing it to re-enter the atmosphere without disintegrating like most booster rockets do on the return journey home.
This will be a big test for SpaceX’s renewable booster rocket technology, being the first of its kind and could potentially provide cheaper space travel. “Re-usability has been the Holy Grail of the launch industry for decades,” says Jeff Foust, an analyst at Futron, a consultancy based in Bethesda, Maryland. At the moment the industry standard rockets add a huge amount to the launch costs.
The plan is for the rocket to finish up over the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Cape Canaveral, where the launchpad is located. While the engines are still running, the rocket will hover over the sea, before the landing legs are deployed and the engines cut out, then dropping in to the ocean. It will be recovered quickly by a barge waiting nearby. For safety reasons the Falcon 9 will land in the ocean on this flight but in the future it is hoped it will touch down on land.
Back in November Falcon 9 made a flight to take a communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit. It was then that a Falcon 9 first stage was able to successfully restart three of its nine engines, making a controlled supersonic re-entry to Earth. Although it survived the re-entry, it broke up once it hit the Pacific Ocean. At the time Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, said that landing legs would have likely stabilized the rocket, allowing for a controlled landing on water. The upcoming flight will be the first orbital test that the Falcon 9 does with landing legs.
SpaceX has already caused a stir within the satellite launch market due to its radically lower launch costs. So with the development of reusable rockets, who knows where this could take them. Mars perhaps?
[Image via wired4space]