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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  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    @17 Merlin engines use a kerosene/liquid oxygen mix so with an optimum burn you'd get water vapour and CO2.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    SpaceX will be taking orders away from Ariane 5 so Europe needs a new and cheaper launcher. Ariane 6 is planned but we really need Skylon to compete on costs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Sounds like Space X is getting much closer to a working reusable first stage. I have done some work trying to solve this problem and can assure everyone that its a seriously difficult problem.
    When a 1st stage is ejected, it is empty of fuel and becomes very bottom heavy and this puts it in a position where it cant fly stably - its light structure severe air buffeting and heating do the rest..

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I'm really excited to see the private sector growing in space. This shows space is now an affordable venture - which means our technology is becoming more advanced and efficient.

    Companies like SpaceX launching their own rockets and payloads today means that we the people will soon be directly involved in this growing market.

    There is hope for mankind and life - we will colonize other worlds!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @ 5.Balloon Rake

    I'll tell you what, if we don't manage our numbers and/or find another habitable planet, we are seriously ****** !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Wow, if everyone thought as you do we'd still be hunting in the woods.

    You can thank the Industrial Revolution for your advanced technology, modern medicine, plentiful food, ease of travel and longevity of 80+.

    Space Exploration is the next Industrial Revolution. Not only has it birthed new industries, technology & infrastructure, but it inspires young people to become scientists & engineers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    That doesn't look like water vapour coming out the end !!!

    Could someone bring me up to speed before I have difficulty breathing ....

    just so I know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Interesting stuff. SpaceX are really making the running here, hopefully they'll be allowed to launch manned Dragon capsules in due course. As for the troll in reply 5, ignore, he's always here, trolling, likely in his underwear all day. Slagging off science while using a computer powered by electricity. Maybe he should be true to himself and use a carrier pigeon next time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I imagine being able to land in one piece goes a long way to establish confidence in the next launch! Since the "rockets" are liquid-fuelled, they could be made as reliable as the shuttle main engines. One of the reasons they chose a 9-engine configuration was to gain hours of operating experience quickly. Fuel is just a fraction of the launch cost, so reusability is worth the extra weight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Interesting concept. I wonder however what the reliability of the 'recycled in part' vehicles will be?
    Space Exploration is and always will be an expensive adventure and so long as the risk of the loss of payload due to failure of the launch vehicle is calculated against the cost savings then the sky's the limit (or not in this case).

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    5.Balloon Rake

    A commercial company putting commercial payloads into orbit for companies to provide Earth centric commercial services such as telecommunications, GPS, weather, agricultural data, surveying, imaging and maybe even some blue skies research projects that add to the sum total of human knowledge. Now back under your rock, there's a good fellow.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    awesome. we're nearing that future i was promised as a kid. no hover boards yet, but ultra sonic toothbrushes and spaceX is a good start

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    A classic case of Occam's Razor. Whilst it may seem simpler & more sensible to use parachutes, they need complex firing mechanisms & specialised parachutes which add to the weight & cost. All this needs are some retractable legs.
    The videos of it are great, I highly reccomend watching them on YouTube.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    #2 "...this venture is being run by a futurist ... with an actual goal other than just pleasing shareholders"

    Sorry, but you can't have a company without shareholders. SpaceX is not a charity. It may well go public in future like Musk's other venture, Tesla. Incidentally, he made his fortune from PayPal.

    Good ideas make money and there is nothing wrong with that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    @Balloon Rake "A complete waste of money from scientists who have too much time on their hands, space exploration is pointless, it's the pipe dream of sc-fi fans."

    Maybe its your tunnel vision, lack of imagination, or failure to look outside the box that's the issue?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Balloon Rake: This is a commercial company that is doing this. Even ignoring Elon's stated goals of getting humans to Mars, The satellites he is launching will also be for telecommunications and earth observation. The work Spacex is doing will massively bring down launch costs, allowing more of these incredibly useful, even essential satellites to be launched.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    This has got to be the future, we can't keep dumping expensive hardware in the sea after it's only been used once.

    It's going to be difficult though. I only hope they don't give up after the inevitable initial failures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    A complete waste of money from scientists who have too much time on their hands, space exploration is pointless, it's the pipe dream of sc-fi fans.


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