At 6:20 a.m. this morning, a rocket took off from Cape Canaveral. At the edge of space it separated its 1st and 2nd stage engines, letting the 1st stage fall back to Earth. The 2nd stage continued into a high orbital altitude and deployed its cargo, a Japanese communications satellite. Meanwhile, the 1st stage hurtled back through the atmosphere at 2 km/s. It was coming in fast and very, very hot but nonetheless automatically turned itself upright and landed on a robot boat named Of Course I Still Love You. The rocket did this in the dark and with no pilot. Not bad. This technological tour de force wasn’t conducted by NASA or another publicly funded space agency; it was the work of the privately-owned SpaceX.
The rocket that delivered its payload and landed its reusable parts is the Falcon 9, which already has great credentials. In 2012 it carried the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), making SpaceX the first commercial company to visit the space station. Now NASA contract SpaceX to bring and retrieve cargo from the ISS on a regular basis. The 2nd stage of Falcon 9 can be reignited several times in space so different satellites can be deployed at different orbits making it very efficient. Its most efficient feature is that the 1st stage is reusable, though it’s taken a lot of work to get it to this point.
Getting Falcon 9 to land itself has been difficult and we’ve been treated to many explosions along the way. At first the rockets were designed to take off for a few seconds and land. Next they were made to hover for a while and eventually navigational systems were added so it could move around and return to the landing area. Things got tricky when the rockets had to travel high into the atmosphere and then land on robot boats. Time and time again the rockets either crashed violently or nearly landed but then toppled.
It’s the kind of expensive failure you could imagine would cause some organisations to give up but as SpaceX owner Elon Musk famously said, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” You can watch an amazing visual history of the Falcon 9’s development in this great video by Kinematic:
What comes next?
It’s easy to get caught up in the success of the Falcon 9. It was travelling 6 times faster than the speed of sound yet came to rest on a robot boat in the dark. But this is just a stepping stone to bigger things for the SpaceX. Reusable rockets means space missions will happen more often and they want to be launching Falcon 9 rockets several times per month by the end of the year. The Dragon capsule that already makes trips to the ISS with cargo will soon carry astronauts too. All of this is exciting but SpaceX has even bigger plans with an even bigger rocket. In fact, it will be 2 times more powerful than any other rocket in use.
The Falcon Heavy is fearsome. It’s like a giant version of the Falcon 9 and its 1st stage looks like 3 Falcon 9 1st stages strapped together. When it takes off for the first time later this year, it will push out 5 million pounds of thrust. That’s like strapping 18 Boeing 747s together. So why go bigger? For starters it will be able to deliver payloads twice as heavy as the Falcon 9 into orbit or to the ISS. But its ultimate goal is far grander. From the outset Falcon Heavy has been designed to fly humans to the Moon and to Mars. It might sound like a pipe dream or sci-fi to some, but the same could be said for everything SpaceX has achieved so far.
SpaceX has a number of launches planned for the Falcon Heavy over the next couple of years starting with tests and eventually carrying heavy satellites into orbit. But things get really interesting in 2018 with the Red Dragon mission: a modified version of the Dragon spacecraft will be carried by a Falcon Heavy rocket tens of millions of miles through space to Mars where it will land. The journey through the atmosphere will mimic that of future human missions to investigate the feasibility of landing humans on the red planet.
Red Dragon will be of great scientific interest as the Dragon capsule can carry equipment for detecting life and investigating the source of ground ice. But most importantly it paves the way for human missions. If SpaceX want to land people on Mars, they will travel in a Dragon capsule carried by a Falcon Heavy. If they can pull it off with no crew, it becomes a real possibility that a commercial company could bring people to another planet for the first time. And they really want to. Elon Musk has stated his ambition to land people on Mars in the 2020s, at least a decade ahead of NASA. Other companies have made outrageous claims about going to Mars so we should always be sceptical. On the other hand, it’s SpaceX. We’ll be watching Red Dragon very closely.
It would perfectly reasonable to expect SpaceX to take a bit of a break and rest on its laurels since it can now travel to high orbits and automatically land reusable rockets. Maybe take a while to celebrate? Slow things down a bit?
May need to increase size of rocket storage hangar
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 6, 2016
That’s the spirit.
Main image: SpaceX