While SpaceX have yet to successfully land a Falcon 9 first stage it appears their vision has spurred the industry to react with both United Launch Alliance (ULA) and now Airbus Aerospace announcing plans to include re-usable components in future rocket designs.
The three companies have quite different plans to achieve the re-use.
SpaceX – Plan to land the complete first stage initially on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) which is placed about 400 miles off the Florida coast during liftoff. Eventually they would like to return the stage to landing pads located near the original launch pad.
ULA – Their new Vulcan rocket will allow the Engines to be re-used. Once the first stage has completed its work the engines will be detached, an inflatable heat shield will protect them during re-entry and then an Parafoil will be used to slow the descending engines so that a helicopter can capture them while still in the air.
Airbus – They plan to have a detachable module too which contains the engines and main avionics, unlike the ULA module this will be a winged module that will return to Earth and land like a plane.
Only time will tell how successful these plans are however SpaceX has two big advantages at present.
First they are already testing their design and have already demonstrated that they can return the full first stage to the ASDS, they just haven’t been successful at landing it yet. The next attempt will be later this month during the CRS-7 launch. ULA will not be flying the Vulcan rocket until at least 2019 and the Ariane 6 rocket will not include the re-usable module initially.
Second once they have successfully landed a first stage they will be able to determine just how quickly it could be re-used. The other two plans will require that the rest of the first stage be constructed each time before the engines can be attached.
SpaceX completed another CCiCap milestone today with the successful Launchpad Abort Test of there Dragon 2 capsule. The capsules 8 SuperDraco engines propelled the vehicle away from the launchpad to a splashdown in the Atlantic ocean.
The purpose of the test was to verify the design of the launch escape system a critical element for manned space flight. The capsule carried 270 different sensors to allow NASA and SpaceX to determine the loads on the crew members during the test and many other pieces of information. They also had a test dummy in one of the seats and weights to simulate a fully crewed vehicle. Once the capsule has been retrieved from the ocean it will be inspected and prepared for the next test which is an in-flight abort test at Max-Q to verify they can escape then if needed.
Most current launch abort systems use a tower attached to the top of the capsule which is then ejected during the launch, SpaceX has opted to build the system into the actual capsule allowing them to provide escape scenarios throughout the flight.
The test came the day after the 54th anniversary of the Alan Shepherd’s Freedom 7 Mercury flight, the SuperDraco engines produced more thrust during the test than the engines on the Freedom 7 rocket.
SpaceX has completed their 5th launch of the year with the delivery of the TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat satellite to orbit.
The launch was delayed several weeks to allow SpaceX time to investigate issues they found with Helium bottles back at the factory and to allow the CRS-6 mission to take off on time. With this launch SpaceX once again broke there turn-around record with just 13 days between launches.
Due to the weight of the satellite and it’s destination orbit SpaceX flew the Falcon 9 without the landing hardware to lower the weight of the vehicle. The next launch that will attempt a landing will be the CRS-7 mission in June.
This is the first satellite launched for Turkmenistan.
For the second time SpaceX attempted to land a Falcon 9 first stage on the Autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) named “Just Read the Instructions”.
For this attempt the rocket got very close but didn’t survive the attempt, the first time the rocket tipped over just before landing causing it to fall over the side. According to early information from Elon Musk today the second attempt was closer, it is believed the rocket did actually land but then tipped over. We will know more once the ASDS arrives back in port.
Today I wanted to look closer at what SpaceX has already achieved with these attempts and previous soft landings and what this means for the future attempts back to land.
Lets consider what the first stage was doing just minutes before it attempted to land. From liftoff the 141 foot tall stage accelerated to 3.4 kilometers per second before detaching from the second stage. It then turned around, and fired its engines to return back to the ASDS, after the boost back it then had to turn around again for re-entry through the atmosphere. During the re-entry the engines are fired again to control the speed of descent to minimize heating. The legs and fins were then deployed and the engines fired again to bring it down towards the ASDS.
Precision Landing – While the rockets didn’t survive either attempt, the fact that they were that close to the ASDS in itself is a big achievement.
Learning lessons – With each attempt they are getting more and more data to help them perfect the process. They will analyze the data from this attempt and from that see what changes are needed before trying again.
Moving closer to Dragon 2 landings – The initial version of Dragon 2 will be using parachute landings on water the long term goal is to use propulsive landings. While the Dragon 2 will have different engines and is a smaller vehicle SpaceX will learn the right amount of fuel etc to be able to safely land.
As the vine below shows SpaceX were very close yesterday and it looks very possible that they will have at least one successful landing this year if not more. The more flights they have the more attempts they can make.
Almost as soon as United Launch Alliance’s Tory Bruno announced the new Vulcan rocket system did articles start to appear stating that it “would bring down SpaceX”. One from CNN also incorrectly stated that SpaceX aborted the landing of the first stage yesterday.
While that may be the goal of ULA it is way too soon to be making such bold statements.
First as stated yesterday the upgrades will be rolled out in multiple steps starting in 2019 assuming that everything goes as planned with Blue Origin’s development of the BE-4 engine. Even then ULA will have to demonstrate that the rocket is as reliable as there current Atlas V or Delta IV before they can move the government launches to the platform, in previous statements Tory himself said certification could take several years. That doesn’t take into account any re-certification that may be needed when the new upper stage is rolled out.
Second their re-usability plan is for the engines only which will be captured in mid-air and then lowered to a barge and returned to base. While this has been done before it still relies on the weather co-operating and the time needed to return the engines to the factory/hanger for inspection, re-firing and re-integration with another first stage core. At present SpaceX have the same challenges with the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) system, but longer term returning to the launch site looks to be more beneficial, only time will tell on that.
Third four-six years is a long time and SpaceX will have plenty of time to improve their offerings, both in relation to payload capacity with Falcon Heavy and on-time launch something they have struggled with so far.
So will Vulcan bring down SpaceX? It seems very unlikely that on its own the new rocket system will bring them down, it will all depend on how SpaceX performed before Vulcan comes online and how they adapt to the competition that it will bring.