Recycled rockets: SpaceX calls time on expendable launch vehicles

Falcon 9 launch Falcon 9: The lower part of the rocket - its first-stage - will eventually carry landing gear

Have we witnessed the beginning of a revolution in rocketry?

On Sunday, the SpaceX company launched the latest version of its Falcon 9 vehicle from California, placing a cluster of small satellites in low-Earth orbit.

The new vehicle has been given the additional performance it needs to start lofting commercial telecoms spacecraft and other payloads, and nearly all of these modifications appear to work just fine.

But it's what happened to part of the rocket after it had completed the primary mission goals - as it fell to Earth - that really has everyone talking.

Normally, the first-stage of a rocket – the segment that gets it up off the ground – is discarded at altitude, whereupon it begins a destructive dive back through the atmosphere.

Aerodynamic forces tear the tumbling object apart. This is the history of rocketry – everything is expendable.

SpaceX, though, has plans to try to recover these stages in good working order, to refurbish them and to put them back on the launch pad.

If the company can succeed, it would have a major impact on the cost of access to space. Expendable rockets would become reusable. Parts of them, certainly.

To this end, Sunday’s first-stage was commanded to reignite three of its nine engines after separation from the rocket’s upper-stage in an attempt to slow its return to Earth.

Then, as the stage got closer to the Pacific Ocean, it fired up a fourth engine to limit the descent speed still further.

SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk promises to post video on the web later this week showing what happened.

Although the stage lost some stability as it approached the water, the entrepreneur expressed great satisfaction with the way the experiment went.

Start Quote

If things go super-well then we will be able to refly a Falcon 9 stage before the end of next year”

End Quote Elon Musk SpaceX CEO

“In this case, the boost stage did not have landing gear, which helps essentially to stabilise the stage like fins on an aircraft.

“The stage actually ended up spinning to a degree that was greater than we could control with the gas thrusters, and it centrifuged the propellant. It caused the boost stage to run out of propellant before hitting the water. So it hit the water relatively hard.

“We’ve recovered portions of the stage, but the most important thing is we believe we now have all the pieces of the puzzle.”

Those "pieces" comprise the lessons learned from Sunday and the results garnered from SpaceX’s Grasshopper programme, in which a Falcon first-stage has executed precision take-offs and landings from a pad in Texas. A number of videos illustrate these hops. Note the landing legs.

Grasshopper test The Grasshopper programme has run a series of precision take-offs and landings

Retractable versions will now be incorporated on to the Falcon 9 that launches the company’s next Nasa cargo mission to the space station from Florida at the beginning of 2014.

And again, once the first-stage has completed its primary tasks on that flight, it will be commanded to reignite its engines and to make a controlled return to Earth.

Start Quote

The first-stage represents almost three-quarters of the cost of a Falcon 9”

End Quote

But it won’t drop into the ocean. This time, the boost stage will try to touch down on a piece of ground at Cape Canaveral not far from the launch pad.

SpaceX is currently working through the technicalities with range officials at the Cape, and with the Federal Aviation Authority. An FAA licence will be needed before such a landing is permitted.

Obviously, with a load of kerosene fuel onboard, all matters of safety will have to be satisfied first.

“For any landing area, the landing ellipse - the error that the stage could encounter - would be an unpopulated region,” Musk tells me. "We would aim to have a landing site that’s unpopulated with a radius of probably a couple of miles."

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is currently being offered at about $54m a launch. That is very competitive by today’s standards, but it would be substantially cheaper still if elements of the rocket could be recycled. The company says the first-stage represents almost three-quarters of the cost of a Falcon 9.

Clearly, in carrying extra fuel and landing gear, you take a hit on the rocket’s performance – the maximum payload you can carry to orbit is cut by about 30% if you try to return the first-stage to the launch site, says Musk. But the imperative is clear.

“In terms of when we actually refly the stages, it’s going to depend on what condition the stage is in, and obviously getting customers comfortable with that,” Musk explains.

"If things go super-well then we will be able to refly a Falcon 9 stage before the end of next year. That’s our aspiration."

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    It's a shame how rocketry since the 1940's has been so held back by the needs of missiles. It would be nice if this could work, and Elon Musk has a record of making it so...

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Enough; I'm not going to participate in yet another argument about statism. This article is about science and technology - people who're interested in those things don't want to be exposed to petty debates about politics.

    I'm off now - I'd like you to promise me that you'll stop trying to push your agenda into a place where it isn't wanted. No more comments about anything other than rockets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    You can't just measure the return by money. Look at the impact on science & technology.
    The bureaucrat's mantra. Easy to preach so when it's not your money. People need to eat, as the USSR bears solemn testament.
    I'm sure if people felt it was worth it, they would fund space enterprises in varying ways without coercive taxes. If you need coercion, it's usually not worth it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    We're not talking about aircraft; that's a different thing. Far too many variables to draw a comparison.

    You say 'pottering around' as if we aren't actually doing anything. Space agencies do a lot in LEO.

    Computers aren't rockets. Making a better computer doesn't solve the problems of rocket propulsion.

    You can't just measure the return by money. Look at the impact on science & technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Not likely; government got us into space.
    "Not likely;" Are you speculating?
    Did government get us into powered flight?

    With 4 decades of advances in computer technology excuses the fact we pottered around in LOE, despite taking $Billions annually? Pretty poor return on investment, again, by government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Not likely; government got us into space.

    Don't forget the German government built V2s (weapons of war) - first rocket to go to space - and the US only put a man on the moon to beat the Soviets there. The space race was largely synonymous with the arms race - proving which superpower had better rocket technology.

    We're pottering around because the space race ended so governments cut budgets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    We may already be in space by now if it wasn't for government in our way, like in war - where untold innovators and brilliant minds were slaughtered.

    We had the industrial revolution and in 100 years saw the greatest increase in technology up until then combined. We invented flight 100 years ago. When to the moon 40 years ago - why are we pottering around in low earth orbit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Its not exactly a free market either.

    Come on Sally, we both know you've taken this comments section way off course to promote your agenda like you do on every article.

    That's not a tough question, just a very loaded one. Starvation wasn't prevalent during the space race. People had food; deaths happened in gulags.

    But we could ask that question of every project that advanced human society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Skylon looks great!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    If you don't want to take the Skylon approach but instead want to use conventional rockets in a reusable SSTO vehicle then apparently a duel fuel single oxidizer rocket approach is best. Oxygen as the oxidizer and hydrogen as the final fuel,.. with the initial high density fuel possibly being one of the following, kerosene(RP-1), propane, hydrazine or methylacetylene

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    China is not Communist.

    Stay on topic of space, not health, please. How many USSR citizens starved as their resources were redirected by government to a space race? What do you tell them? Worth it?
    How many families would you drive into starvation to put up a satellite?

    *Cue ducking tough questions. "Quack quack!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    You claimed the free market is better at stimulating advanced research, yet the USSR was responsible for the largest number of great achievements in space exploration. China is overtaking the US. Your assertion doesn't add up to reality.

    If you want to play that 'was it worth it' card, let me ask you: are all the lives lost to the US healthcare system worth it for the almighty free market?

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    91.Left Libertarian
    Is your high horse named sanctimonious? Does it play the violin?

    Yes, Tesla's work was very cheap, you got me. He built Wardenclyffe Tower on his own with sticks and twine. Innovation at its best. Wait...

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Back to the personal, condescending remarks. I thought we were done with that?

    Tesla has existing science to work from and could clearly demonstrate how he could turn a profit.

    Rocket scientists couldn't do the same; it was impossible to get funding from private investors. They HAD to go to the government and it wasn't until the Soviets launched Sputnik that they finally got serious funding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    89.Left Libertarian
    You're a lost cause. Tesla ideas were untried, highly experimental, and equally expensive. Those principles are no different than to another field of physics, rocketry.

    How many citizens starved as their resources were redirected to a space race? What do you tell them? Worth it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Are you seriously comparing Tesla's work to everything NASA has done? His ideas were affordable, low risk and returned a profit quickly.

    Without the Cold War there would've been no space race. You'd never have convinced investors to put money into vastly expensive projects that returned nothing - explain how you would've made propulsion affordable without decades of profitless experiments?

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    "Every example of central economic planning, the central allocation of resources, is inferior to that of the free market. There's a reason why those nations that do the least of it are more advanced than those that embrace central economic planning."

    USSR: a communist country which launched the first satellites, men and space stations into orbit.

    Then we have UK healthcare v US healthcare...

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    86.Left Libertarian
    Good luck pitching that to private investors.
    Nicola Tesla managed to get funding.

    85.Robert Lucien
    Hi Robert,
    I think comment 77 covers that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Because it took more than 60 years of rocket science, high risk experiments and tens of billions of dollars to get propulsion technology to the point where private companies could affordably launch a payload and make a profit. Good luck pitching that to private investors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    #57 Sally the Rothbardian #56 Left Libertarian
    "Are you suggesting that without WWII we'd have no space program at all?"

    If you read the history in detail its even worse than that, Hitler himself had a huge personal impact. Hitler funded Von Braun and rocket research for over a decade and it was that time & money which took rockets from being toys to being real machines that could reach space.


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