SpaceX has made some amazing accomplishments in the past few years, all of which have been in keeping with Elon Musk’s promise to cut the costs of space exploration. And with all the excitement surrounding the Starship Hopper and its first hop tests, there was one very important accomplishment that seems to have faded into the background a little.
Luckily, SpaceX reminded everyone about it this week, as the company conducted the second successful launch of their Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. But what was especially impressive this time around is the fact that they managed to retrieve all three of the Falcon Heavy’s rocket boosters, as well as the payload fairings.
One of the defining characteristics of the modern space age is the way private aerospace companies (aka. NewSpace) is playing a role like never before. With every passing year, more and more small launch providers are being founded. And between the largest companies – SpaceX and Blue Origin – competition is heating up to see who will secure the most lucrative contracts and make it to Mars first!
In order to ensure they remain competitive, Blue Origin indicated that it would be following SpaceX’s lead by recovering its first-stage rocket boosters at sea. To this end, the company has acquired a used Danish vessel known as Stena Freighter, which recently arrived in Florida. Much like SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS), this vessel will be used to retrieve spent rockets after they deliver their cargo to space.
One of the defining characteristics of the renewed age of space exploration is the way that private aerospace companies are participating like never before. In addition to major companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance, there are countless companies that are looking to reduce the costs of individual missions and provide launch services to the public and private sector.
One such company is EXOS Aerospace Systems & Technologies, Inc., a leading developer of reusable space launch vehicles. This past summer, the company conducted a Pathfinder test flight with their Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with GuidancE (SARGE) rocket. The successful launch and recovery has validated the SARGE platform and was a major step towards EXOS’s long term plans to send small packages into orbit using reusable rockets.
When it comes to the new era of space exploration, one of the primary focuses has been on cutting costs. By reducing the costs associated with individual launches, space agencies and private aerospace companies will not only be able to commercialize Low Earth-Orbit (LEO), but also mount far more in the way of exploration missions and maybe even colonize space.
Several methods have been proposed so far for reducing launch costs, which include reusable rockets and single-stage-to-orbit rockets. However, a team of engineers from the University of Glasgow and the Ukraine recently proposed an entirely different idea that could make launching small payloads affordable – a self-eating rocket! This “autophage” rocket could easily send small satellites into space more easily and more affordably.
The study which describes how they built and tested the “autophage” engine recently appeared in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets under the title “Autophage Engines: Toward a Throttleable Solid Motor“. The team was led by Vitaly Yemets and Patrick Harkness – a Professor from the Oles Honchar Dnipro National University in the Ukraine and a Senior Lecturer from the University of Glasgow, respectively.
Together, the team addressed one the most pressing issues when it comes to rockets today. This has to do with the fact that storage tanks, which contain the rocket’s propellants as they climb, weight many times the spacecraft’s payload. This reduces the efficiency of the launch vehicle and also adds to the problem of space debris, since these fuel tanks are disposable and fall away when spent.
As Dr Patrick Harkness, who led Glasgow’s contribution to the work, explained in a recent University of Glasgow press release:
“Over the last decade, Glasgow has become a centre of excellence for the UK space industry, particularly in small satellites known as ‘CubeSats’, which provide researchers with affordable access to space-based experiments. There’s also potential for the UK’s planned spaceport to be based in Scotland. However, launch vehicles tend to be large because you need a large amount of propellant to reach space. If you try to scale down, the volume of propellant falls more quickly than the mass of the structure, so there is a limit to how small you can go. You will be left with a vehicle that is smaller but, proportionately, too heavy to reach an orbital speed.”
In contrast, an autophage engine consumes its own structure during ascent, so more cargo capacity could be freed-up and less debris would enter orbit. The propellant consists of a solid fuel rod (made of a solid plastic like polyethylene) on the outside and an oxidizer on the inside. By driving the rod into a hot engine, the fuel and oxidizer are vaporized to create gas that then flows into the combustion chamber to produce thrust.
“A rocket powered by an autophage engine would be different,” said Dr. Harkness. “The propellant rod itself would make up the body of the rocket, and as the vehicle climbed the engine would work its way up, consuming the body from base to tip. That would mean that the rocket structure would actually be consumed as fuel, so we wouldn’t face the same problems of excessive structural mass. We could size the launch vehicles to match our small satellites, and offer more rapid and more targeted access to space.”
The research team also showed that the engine could be throttled by simply varying the speed at which the rod is driven into the engine, which is something rare in a solid motor. During the lab tests, the team has been able to sustain rocket operations for 60 seconds at a time. As Dr. Harkness said, the team hopes to build on this and eventually conduct a launch test:
“While we’re still at an early stage of development, we have an effective engine testbed in the laboratory in Dnipro, and we are working with our colleagues there to improve it still further. The next step is to secure further funding to investigate how the engine could be incorporated into a launch vehicle.”
Another challenge of the modern space age is how to deliver additional payloads and satellites into orbit without creating more in the way of orbital clutter. By introducing an engine that can make for cheap launches that also has no disposable parts, the autophage could be a game-changing technology, one which is right up there with fully-recoverable rockets.
The research team also consisted of Mykola Dron and Anatoly Pashkov – a Professor and Senior Researcher from Oles Honchar Dnipro National University – and Kevin Worrall and Michael Middleton – a Research Associate and M.S. student from the University of Glasgow.
In recent decades, China’s space program has advanced considerably. In addition to deploying their first space station (Tiangong-1) and developing a modern rockets (the Long March 5), the nation has also sent robotic mission to the lunar surface and plans to conduct crewed missions there in the coming years. To this end, China is looking to create a new series of rockets that will enable them to explore the Moon and maybe even Mars.
One of the rockets they use to accomplish these goals is known as the Long-March 8, which is expected to make its maiden flight around 2021. According to a statement made by the chief rocket designer (Long Lehao) during a recent space conference in Harbin, China, the rocket will also include a reusable first stage. This latest announcement shows that China is also pursuing reusable launch vehicles to lower costs and increase their presence in space.
According to the China Space Report, the Long March 8 (Changzheng 8, or CZ-8) is a medium-lift vehicle intended for Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) missions – i.e. where payloads are delivered to a nearly polar orbit around a planet. Consisting of two stages and two boosters, this rocket will reportedly have a payload capacity of 3000 to 4,500 kg (6600 to 9900 lbs) to SSO.
The first stages on this rocket are believed to be based on the first-stage of the Long March 7, which are powered by two single-chamber YF-100, 1,200 kN-thrust engines fueled by LOX/kerosene. Based on Long’s statement, the first stages and boosters are expected to be retrieved through vertical landing (similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets).
However, according to Bao Weimin, the director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the Long March 8 will use different technologies that those employed by SpaceX. The purpose of this rocket will be to provide commercial launch services to customers from around the world.
As Long indicated during the course of the conference (according to China Daily):
“China’s aerospace industry is making efforts to develop low-cost vehicles that can enter space rapidly to support future large-scale space exploration and promote a commercial space industry.”
In addition, Long also emphasized that China will be making efforts to address an ongoing problem with its younger Long March rockets, which is controlling where they fall. Currently, landing areas have to be are evacuated at every launch since these rockets rely on toxic chemicals. And with launches becoming more frequent, controlling where these rockets fall is becoming a major priority.
“As the current Long March 2, 3, 4 series rockets are fueled by toxic propellants, they cannot be recycled,” said Long. “But we are developing technologies to precisely control the fall of the rocket remains to ensure safety.”
Lastly, Long indicated what lies ahead for China’s space program and commercial spaceflight. By 2025, he claimed, reusable carriers will be developed for conducting suborbital space flights. By 2030, China National Space Agency will be conducting launches with rockets that rely on two reusable stages and will have achieved complete reusability by 2035. He also hinted how by 2040, China will be using reusable carrier rockets that will rely on hybrid-power sources.
All of this will allow for cheaper and more efficient launch services, facilitate spaceflight for private citizens, and allow for the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These goals are in keeping with what space agencies like NASA and private aerospace companies like SpaceX have in mind for the coming decades. In this sense, China is indicating that it intends to parallel other major powers in space by following a similar path.
One of the greatest challenges of modern spaceflight is finding a way to make launching rockets into space commercially viable. Reduced costs will not only mean more launches, but the ability to conduct more ambitious programs in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. To this end, many private aerospace companies are investing in reusability, where the first-stages of a rocket and even entire vehicles are retrieved after launch and reused.
In recent years, Elon Musk has become famous for his development of reusable first-stage boosters and fairings. But Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos has also been no slouch when it comes to making the company’s fleet of rockets reusable. On Sunday, April 29th, the company is passing another milestone with the 8th test flight of the New Shephard rocket, an event which is being live-streamed.
As a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle, the New Shephard is crucial to Blue Origins’ vision of commercial spaceflight and space tourism. Consisting of a pressurized capsule aboard a booster, the combined vehicle launches vertically and accelerates for two and a half minutes before the engine cuts off. The capsule then separates and floats into suborbit while the booster returns to Earth under its own power and with the help of parachutes.
Launch preparations are underway for New Shepard’s 8th test flight, as we continue our progress toward human spaceflight. Currently targeting Sunday 4/29 with launch window opening up at 830am CDT. Livestream info to come. @BlueOrigin#GradatimFerociterpic.twitter.com/zAYpAGWB8C
Named in honor of famed astronaut Alan Shepard, the rocket’s crew capsule has room for six people. These will consist of customers looking to take a flight to suborbital altitudes and experience the sensation of weightlessness. As they state on their website:
“The New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet – offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.”
The announcement for the 8th test launch came on Friday, April. 27th, when Bezos tweeted that “launch preparations are underway for New Shepard’s 8th test flight, as we continue our progress toward human spaceflight. Currently targeting Sunday 4/29 with launch window opening up at 830am CDT.” The launch would take place at the company’s suborbital launch and engine test site near the town of Van Horn in West Texas.
As with the previous New Shepard test launch, which took place on Dec. 12th, 2017, the crew for this mission would be the mannequin known as “Mannequin Skywalker” (check out the video of this flight below). As with the previous uncrewed flight, Mannequin Skywalker will be testing the capsule’s safety restrains in advance of a crewed test flight.
At 0526 (0826 PST), Bezos tweeted that the flight window – which was originally set for 0845 CDT (0630 PDT) – had been delayed due to thunderstorm over West Texas. At 0950 CDT (0750 PDT), Bezos issued a follow-up tweet that the liftoff target was now 1113 CDT (0913 PST). Live streaming will begin 15 minutes before the launch, which you can watch by going to Blue Origin’s website.
If successful, this launch test will place Blue Origin one step closer to conducting space tourism. As Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, recently indicated in an interview with CNBC, he hopes the company will begin these launches by the end of this year. In addition, he said that the company continues to pursue the development of engine technology, which it hopes United Launch Alliance will use on its Vulcan rockets as well.
Be sure to check out the live-steam of the launch, and feel free to enjoy this video of the New Shepard conducting a space tourism flight while you’re waiting:
Elon Musk has never been one to keep his long-term plans to himself. Beyond the development of reusable rockets, electric cars, and revolutionizing solar power, he has also been quite vocal about establishing a colony on Mars within his lifetime. The goal here is nothing less than ensuring the survival of the human race by creating a “backup location”, and calls for some serious planning and architecture.
The paper was produced by Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor at Stanford University and the Editor-in-Chief of NewSpace, and includes all the material and slides from Musk’s original presentation. Contained within are Musk’s thoughts on how the colonization of Mars could be accomplished in this century and what issues would need to be addressed.
These include the costs of sending people and payloads to Mars, the technical details of the rocket and vehicle that would be making the trip, and possible cost breakdowns and timelines. But of course, he also addresses the key philosophical questions – “Why go?” and “Why Mars?”
Addressing this first question is one of the most important aspects of space exploration. Remember John F. Kennedy’s iconic “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech? Far from just being a declaration of intent, this speech was a justification by the Kennedy administration for all the time, energy, and money it was committing to the Apollo program. As such, Kennedy’s speech stressed above all else why the goal was a noble undertaking.
In looking to Mars, Musk struck a similar tone, emphasizing survival and humanity’s need to expand into space. As he stated:
“I think there are really two fundamental paths. History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”
As for what makes Mars the natural choice, that was a bit more of a tough sell. Granted, Mars has a lot of similarities with Earth – hence why it is often called “Earth’s Twin” – which makes it a tantalizing target for scientific research. But it also has some rather stark differences that make long-term stays on the surface seem less than appealing. So why would it be the natural choice?
As Musk explains, proximity has a lot to do with it. Sure, Venus is closer to Earth, getting as close as 41 million km (25,476,219 mi), compared to 56 million km (3,4796,787 mi) with Mars. But Venus’ hostile environment is well-documented, and include a super-dense atmosphere, temperatures hot enough to melt lead and sulfuric acid rain! Mercury is too hot and airless, and the Jovian moons are very far.
This leaves us with just two options for the near-future, as far as Musk is concerned. One is the Moon, which is likely to have a permanent settlement on it in the coming years. In fact, between the ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, and the Chines National Space Administration, there is no shortage of plans to build a lunar outpost, which will serve as a successor to the ISS.
But compared to Mars, it is less resource rich, has no atmosphere, and represents a major transition as far as gravity (0.165 g compared to 0.376 g) and length of day (28 days vs. 24.5 hours) are concerned. Herein lies the greatest reason to go to Mars, which is the fact that our options are limited and Mars is the most Earth-like of all the bodies that are currently accessible to us.
What’s more, Musk makes allowances for the fact that colonists could start kick-starting the terraforming process, to make it even more Earth-like over time. As he states (bold added for emphasis):
“In fact, we now believe that early Mars was a lot like Earth. In effect, if we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans. Mars is about half as far again from the Sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, which, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.
“It would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth. We just need to change the populations because currently we have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars.”
Naturally, no mission can be expected to happen without the all-important vehicle. To this end, Musk used the annual IAC meeting to unveil his company’s plans for the Interplanetary Transport System. An updated version of the Mars Colonial Transporter (which Musk began talking about in 2012), the ITS will consist of two main components – a reusable rocket booster and the Interplanetary Spaceship.
The process for getting to Mars with these components involves a few steps. First, the rocket booster and spaceship take off together and the spaceship is delivered into orbit. Next, while the spaceship assumes a parking orbit, the booster returns to Earth to be reloaded with the tanker craft. This vehicle is the same design as the spaceship, but contains propellant tanks instead of cargo areas.
The tanker is then launched into orbit with the booster, where it will rendezvous with the spaceship and refuel it for the journey to Mars. Overall, the propellant tanker will go up anywhere from three to five times to fill the tanks of the spacecraft while it is in orbit. Musk estimates that the turnaround time between the spacecraft launch and the booster retrieval could eventually be as low as 20 minutes.
This process (if Musk gets its way) would expand to include multiple spaceships making the journey to and from Mars every 26 months (when Mars and Earth are closest together):
“You would ultimately have upwards of 1,000 or more spaceships waiting in orbit. Hence, the Mars Colonial fleet would depart en masse. It makes sense to load the spaceships into orbit because you have got 2 years to do so, and then you can make frequent use of the booster and the tanker to get really heavy reuse out of those. With the spaceship, you get less reuse because you have to consider how long it is going to last—maybe 30 years, which might be perhaps 12–15 flights of the spaceship at most.”
In terms of the rocket’s structure, it would consist of an advanced carbon fiber exterior surrounding fuel tanks, which would rely on an autogenous pressurization system. This involves the fuel and oxygen being gasified through heat exchanges in the engine, which would then be used to pressurize the tanks. This is a much simpler system than what is currently being used for the Falcon 9 rocket.
The booster would use 42 Raptor engines arranged in concentric rings to generate thrust. With 21 engines in the outer ring, 14 in the inner ring, and seven in a center cluster, the booster would have an estimated lift-off thrust of 11,793 metric tons (13,000 tons) – 128 MegaNewtons – and a vacuum thrust of 12,714 metric tons (14,015 tons), or 138 MN. This would make it the first spacecraft where the rocket performance bar exceeds the physical size of the rocket.
As for the spacecraft, the designs calls for a pressurized section at the top with an unpressurized section beneath. The pressurized section would hold up to 100 passengers (thought Musk hopes to eventually increase that capacity to 200 people per trip), while all the luggage and cargo necessary for building the Martian colony would be kept in the unpressurized section below.
As for the crew compartments themselves, Musk was sure to illustrate how time in them would not be boring, since the transit time is a long. “Therefore, the crew compartment or the occupant compartment is set up so that you can do zero-gravity games – you can float around,” he said. “There will be movies, lecture halls, cabins, and a restaurant. It will be really fun to go. You are going to have a great time!”
Below both these sections, the liquid oxygen tank, fuel tank and spacecraft engines are located. The engines, which would be directly attached to the thrust cone at the base, would consists of an outer ring of three sea-level engines – which would generate 361 seconds of specific impulse (Isp) – and an inner cluster of six vacuum engines that would generate 382s Isp.
The exterior of the spacecraft will also be fitted with a heatshield, which will be composed of the same material that SpaceX uses on its Dragon spacecraft. This is known as a phenolic-impregnated carbon ablator (PICA), which SpaceX is on their third version of. In total, Musk estimates that the Interplanetary Spaceship will be able to transport 450 tons of cargo to Mars, depending upon how many times the tanker can refill the craft.
And, depending on the Earth-Mars rendezvous, the transit time could be as little as 80 days one-way (figuring for a speed of 6km/s). But with time, Musk hopes to cut that down to just 30 days, which would make it possible to establish a sizable population on Mars in a relatively short amount of time. As Musk indicated, the magic number here in 1 million, meaning the number of people it would take to establish a self-sustaining colony on Mars.
He admitted that this would be a major challenge, and could as long as a century to complete:
“If you can only go every 2 years and if you have 100 people per ship, that is 10,000 trips. Therefore, at least 100 people per trip is the right order of magnitude, and we may end up expanding the crew section and ultimately taking more like 200 or more people per flight in order to reduce the cost per person. However, 10,000 flights is a lot of flights, so ultimately you would really want in the order of 1,000 ships. It would take a while to build up to 1,000 ships. How long it would take to reach that million-person threshold, from the point at which the first ship goes to Mars would probably be somewhere between 20 and 50 total Mars rendezvous—so it would take 40–100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization on Mars.”
When the ITS is ready to launch, it will do so from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which SpaceX currently uses to conduct Falcon 9 launches from. But of course, the most daunting aspect of any colonization effort is cost. At present, and using current methods, sending upwards of 1 million people to Mars is simply not affordable.
Using Apollo-era methods as a touchstone, Musk indicated that the cost to go to Mars would be around $10 billion per person – which is derived from the fact that the program itself cost between $100 and $200 billion (adjust for inflation) and resulted in 12 astronauts setting foot on the Moon. Naturally, this is far too high for the sake of creating a self-sustaining colony with a population of 1 million.
As a result, Musk claimed that the cost of transporting people to Mars would have to be cut by a whopping 5 million percent! Musk’s desire to lower the costs associated with space launches is well-known, and is the very reason he founded SpaceX and began developing reusable technology. However, costs would need to be lowered to the point where a ticket to Mars would cost about the same as a median house – i.e. $200,000 – before any trips to Mars could happen.
As to how this could be done, several strategies are outlined, many of which Musk and space agencies like NASA are already actively pursuing. They include full Reusability, where all stages of a rocket and its cargo module (not just the first stage) would have to be retrievable and reusable. Refueling in Orbit is a second means, which would mean the spacecraft would not have to carry all the fuel they need with them from Earth.
On top of that, there would have to be the option for propellant Production on Mars, where the spaceship will be able to refuel at Mars to make the return trip. This concept has been explored in the past for lunar and Martian missions. And in Mars’ case, the presence of atmospheric and frozen CO², and water in both the soil and the polar ice caps, would mean that methane, oxygen and hydrogen fuel could all be manufactured.
Lastly, there is the question of which propellant would be best. As it stands, there are there basic choices when it comes – kerosene (rocket fuel), hydrogen, and methane. All of these present certain advantages and can be manufactured in-situ on Mars. But based on a cost-benefit breakdown, Musk claims that methane would be the most cost-effective propellant.
As always, Musk also raised the issue of timelines and next steps. This consisted of a rundown of SpaceX’s accomplishments over the past decade and a half, followed by an outline of what he hopes to see his company do in the coming years and decades.
These include the development of the first Interplanetary Spaceship in about four years time, which will be followed by suborbital test flights. He even hinted how the spacecraft could have commercial applications, being used for the rapid transportation of cargo around the world. As for the development of the booster, he indicated that this would be a relatively straightforward process since it simply involves scaling up the existing Falcon 9 booster.
Beyond that, he estimated that (assuming all goes well) a ten-year time frame would suffice for putting all the components together so that it would work for bringing people to Mars. Last, but not least, he offered some glimpses of what could be accomplished with ITS beyond Mars. As the name suggests, Musk is hoping to conduct missions to other destination in the Solar System someday.
Given the opportunities for in-situ fuel production (thanks to the abundance of water ice), the moons of both Jupiter and Saturn were mentioned as possible destination. But beyond moons like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan (all of which were mentioned), even destinations in the trans-Neptunian region of the Solar System were indicated as a possibility.
Given that Pluto also has an abundance of water ice on its surface, Musk claimed that a refueling depot could be built here to service missions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. “I would not recommend this for interstellar journeys,” he admitted, “but this basic system—provided we have filling stations along the way—means full access to the entire greater solar system.”
The publication of this paper, many months after Musk presented the details of his plan to the annual IAC meeting, has naturally generated both approval and skepticism. While there are those who would question Musk’s timelines and his ability to deliver on the proposals contained within, others see it as a crucial step in the fulfillment of Musk’s long-held desire to see the colonization of Mars happen in this century.
To Scott Hubbard, it serves as a valuable contribution to the history of space exploration, something that future generations will be able to access so they can chart the history of Mars exploration – much in the same way NASA archival materials are used to study the history of the Moon landing. As he remarked:
“In my view, publishing this paper provides not only an opportunity for the spacefaring community to read the SpaceX vision in print with all the charts in context, but also serves as a valuable archival reference for future studies and planning. My goal is to make New Space the forum for publication of novel exploration concepts-particularly those that suggest an entrepreneurial path for humans traveling to deep space.”
Elon Musk is no stranger to thinking big and dreaming big. And while many of his proposals in the past did not come about in the time frame he originally specified, no one can doubt that he’s delivered so far. It will be very exciting to see if he can take the company he founded 15 years ago for the sake of fostering the exploration of Mars, and use it instead to lead a colonization effort!
Update: Musk tweeted his thanks to Hubbard for the publication and has indicated that there are some “major changes to the plan coming soon.”
And be sure to check out this video of Musk’s full speech at the 67th annual meeting of the IAC, courtesy of SpaceX:
When Elon Musk launched SpaceX in 2002, he did so with the intention of making reusability a central feature of his company. Designed to lower the costs associated with launches, being able to reuse boosters was also a means of making space more accessible. “If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes,” he said, “the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.”
And with last week’s successful launch of the first reusable Falcon 9 (the SES-10 Mission) Musk chose to unveil more details about his company’s next major milestone. According to Musk, the demonstration flight of the Falcon Heavy – which is scheduled to take place this summer – will involve two recovered Falcon 9 cores and the attempted recovery of the rocket’s upper-stage.
In other words, on its maiden flight, two of the three boosters sending the Falcon Heavy into orbit will be reused, and SpaceX may even try to attempt to make the first-ever recovery of a second stage. Such a feat, if successful, will signal that Musk’s dream of total reusability – where the first stage, payload fairings, and second stage of their launch vehicles are all recoverable – has come to fruition.
According to details shared at the news conference that accompanied the launch of SES-10, Musk indicated that the test flight would make use of boosters that were recovered from two successful Falcon 9 launches, and that all three would be recovered after launch. As he was quoted as saying by Stephen Clark at SpaceFlightNow:
“That will be exciting mission, one way or another. Hopefully in a good direction. The two side boosters will come back and do sort of a synchronized aerial ballet and land. Two of the side boosters will land back at the Cape. That’ll be pretty exciting to see two come in simultaneously, and the center core will land downrange on the drone ship.”
On the following day – Friday, March. 31st, 11:44 am – Musk followed this up with a tweet that indicated that the test flight could also involve something that has never before been attempted. “”Considering trying to bring upper stage back on Falcon Heavy demo flight for full reusability,” he wrote. “Odds of success low, but maybe worth a shot.”
Such a plan is in keeping with what Musk had initially hoped for his company, which was to make all of its rockets entirely reusable. While reusable boosters were not a part of the initial designs for the Falcon Heavy, the numerous successful recoveries (on land and at sea) of the first stage of the Falcon 9 indicated that the Heavy‘s outer cores could be recovered and reused in the same way.
Musk also reiterated that the demo flight would be taking place this summer, and that it would be carrying something comically-inspired. “Silliest thing we can imagine!” he tweeted, in response to a question of what the cargo would be. “Secret payload of 1st Dragon flight was a giant wheel of cheese. Inspired by a friend & Monty Python.”
For those unfamiliar with what Musk was referring to “The Cheese Shop”, a classic Monty Python sketch. From this, we can safely assume that Musk has something similar in mind for the inaugural Falcon Heavy launch. Perhaps some wine and bread to go with that cheese?
The demonstration flight – which will take place on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – is already expected to be a momentous event. With the ability to lift payloads of over 64 metric tons (64,000 kg or 141,096 lbs) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket currently in operation.
In fact, its capacity will be about twice that of the Arianespace Ariane 5 and United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rockets – which are capable of lifting 21,000 kg (46,000 lb) and 28,790 kg (63,470 lb) to LEO, respectively. However, SpaceX has indicated that the payload performance to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) would be reduced with the addition of reusable technology.
Whereas its original capacity to GTO was said to be 22,200kg (48,940 lb), full reusability on all three booster cores will reduce this to 7,000 kg (15,000 lb), while having two reusable outside cores will reduce it to approximately 14,000 kg (31,000 lb). But of course, these reductions in payloads have to be considered against significantly reduced launch costs.
For the time being, the plan is to recover all three boosters of the Falcon Heavy. This may change, depending on the success of the maiden flight, to the point where just the outer boosters are deemed reusable and the central core expendable. And depending on the success of the second stage recovery, SpaceX may begin pursuing reusability with the second stages of their Falcon 9 as well.
Musk has also indicated that at present, SpaceX will be primarily focused on the many commercial missions it has planned using the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. But if all goes according to plan, this summer will be the second time in the space of a single year that Musk’s and the aerospace company he started knocked it out of the park and silenced all those who said he was attempting the impossible.
And to celebrate these feats, SpaceX has placed a particularly special first stage on display outside the company headquarters in Hawthorne, California. This particular rocket stage made history about eight months ago (on Dec. 21st, 2015), when it became the first-ever first stage to be recovered in the entire history of spaceflight.
For the sake of this mission, which was the 20th flight conducted by SpaceX using this class of rocket, the Falcon 9 was tasked with delivering 11 Orbcomm-OG2 communications satellites into orbit. After separating, the first stage descended to Earth and became the first rocket stage ever to make a soft landing and recovery.
Prior to this flight, SpaceX’s had made two attempts at a vertical landing and booster recovery, both of which ended in failure. The first attempt, which took place in January of 2015, ended when the rocket came close to a successful landing aboard the company’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), but then fell over and exploded.
An investigation determined that failure was due to the rocket’s steering fins running out of hydraulic fluid. The second failed attempt, which took place in April of last year, ended when the rocket stage was mere seconds away from landing on ASDS, but once again fell over and exploded. This time around, the culprit was a failure in one of the rocket stage’s engine throttle valves.
On the third attempt, which took place on Dec. 21st, the Falcon 9 first stage landed a mere ten minutes after launching from Earth. After its descent, it successfully touched down in an upright position on SpaceX’s Landing Zone (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The success of this recovery was a major milestone for the company, and a breakthrough in the history of space exploration and technology. Little wonder then why the company is choosing to honor it by placing it on display at the Hawthorn facility, where their rocket manufacturing plant is located.
It all happened this past weekend, where work crews spent Saturday and Sunday standing the 50 meter (165 foot) Falcon 9 stage up on its landing skids. Prior to it being transported to their headquarters in Hawthorne, the rocket’s first stage was being kept in a horizontal position at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and then at a location a few blocks away from the HQ.
Getting it to stand again was no easy task, and required two days and two cranes! The rocket also underwent some “aesthetic renewal” before being erected, which included a cleaning in order to remove all the soot it had accumulated on re-entry. Its logos were also repainted, and most of its engines were replaced by spent versions.
Since this first recovery, SpaceX has managed to conduct five more successful recoveries, one on land and four on its ASDS. They are moving ahead with the first launch of their Falcon Heavy – Demo Flight 1, which is scheduled to take place by the end of 2016 – which will be the heaviest rocket to be launched from the US since the retirement of the venerable Saturn V.
Yes, the little company Elon Musk started with the dream of one-day colonizing Mars has certainly achieved some milestones. And between the creation of this display, and the Dragon capsule they have on display inside their Hawthorn headquarters, the company is clearly committed to immortalizing them.
And be sure to enjoy this video of the Falcon 9 making its first successful landing, courtesy of SpaceX:
The age of full-blown reusable rockets is coming another step closer. SpaceX, the private company owned by PayPal founder Elon Musk, has always strove toward reusable rockets. So far, they’ve successfully landed and recovered rockets, but they haven’t actually reused one yet.
In a recent tweet, Musk said he hopes to re-launch all four of his landed rockets this Fall. Initially, he had hoped for a June re-launch, but rocketry and space travel being what it is, a delay is understandable. Still, that’s a seven month turn-around, which seems rather lengthy. SpaceX hopes that eventually it will only take a few weeks reuse a rocket.
If successful, this will really change the nature of space travel/exploration/colonisation. The cost of putting payloads into orbit will be lowered dramatically. Who knows? Maybe the lower cost will trickle down to us consumers somehow.
It’s been reported that the first reuse flights will likely be Low Earth Orbit (LEO) flights. LEO’s have less complicated flight profiles, so this makes sense. There’s no official word on payloads for these flights yet, though companies like SES and Iridium are probably keenly interested.
It seems like SpaceX is always in the news lately. The pending re-launch of the Falcon 9 is almost overshadowed by other news from SpaceX: the launching of the Falcon Heavy. The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket, and its first launch is scheduled for December 2016.