On Tuesday, Space X Corporation showed off its new Falcon 9 reusable rocket, a design that lands on its feet. Actually the first stage lands horizontally on landing pads instead of being disposable as are existing rocket boosters.
The new rocket is slated to carry a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station on March 16. The launch will take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This mission will carry the cargo ship, loading with over 5,000 pounds of time-sensitive supplies to the International Space Station. The cargo includes food, clothing, science experiments, spare parts and other supplies needed by the six person crew.
Dragon’s cargo of scientific equipment will be involved in over 150 experiments, including 100 experiments with protein crystals. The crystal experiments should help researchers understand how to grow bigger crystals than are possible here on Earth. The experiments could also help scientists figure out how to design new drugs and pesticides.
The Dragon capsule is the only reusable part of the rocket now.
Landing legs on the first stage of Falcon 9 are a step in the direction of creating a fully-reusable rocket. This first use of landing legs will not be the expected use. In this first test of the system the Faclon 9 first stage will extend the landing legs and touch down in the sea instead of on land. After Sunday’s test flight to orbit, SpaceX engineers intend to recover the first stage and evaluate what it would cost to make that stage serviceable again.
SpaceX technicians will control the returning first stage on this and future flights. Elon Musk, CEO and co-founder of SpaceX, said that water landings will continue until the firm is confident that precision control in hypersonic through subsonic speeds is possible.
A future mission will see the returning first stage steered to a land at Cape Canaveral. This mission marks a first in spaceflight, as a reusable rocket has never been successfully launched and recovered. Because reusable rockets could make access to space so much cheaper they are like a Holy Grail of space technology. This is because single-use rockets are enormously expensive to launch.
Astrophysicist R.D. Boozer, a member of the Space Development Steering Committee (SDSC), claimed that SpaceX hopes to be able to recover the rocket and make it ready for another flight in under a day. SpaceX did not confirm this claim. Simple recovery and reuse of that first stage would mean that SpaceX does have a reusable rocket to show off, even only two of the main components are reusable.
The first stage with its nine Merlin engines accounts for the majority of the cost of each Falcon rocket, but there is a second stage. This stage is expendable now, but SpaceX intends to recover and reuse the second stage if possible.
SpaceX is under contract to NASA to deliver 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) of supplies with 16 Dragon flights over the next few years. The contract is valued at about $1.6 billion.
Sunday, March 16 will mark the rocket’s first real use. Static testing of the nine Merlin engines on Sunday, March 10 went well. SpaceX tested a prototype of the Falcon 9 stage one rocket called Grasshopper at its McGregor, Texas facility beginning in 2012. A series of test flights ended with an October, 2012 flight to an altitude of 744 meters.
In November of 2012, a Falcon 9 first stage placed a communications satellite in orbit and successfully re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. The supersonic reentry was a success, but the rocket later went out of control and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
The next flight will be the first opportunity that SpaceX has to show off a reusable rocket that promises to slash the costs of orbital space flight.
By Chester Davis