SpaceX today has announced that they have for the first time been able to conduct a controlled landing of one of their Falcon 9 rockets. After delivering its payload into orbit, the rocket fell back towards Earth, before being slowed, not by a parachute, but rather by a series of retro-rockets. These managed to bring the craft down to near-zero velocity, allowing it to conduct a soft, vertical landing on the ocean surface.
As this was merely a test of the system, not conducted on dry land, or a floating platform, once the rocket had ‘landed’ it topped over in heavy seas, and exploded. Despite this, the landing is massive news for the space industry. Fundamentally, it represents a working proof of concept for the vertical landing of rockets.
In the past, sending goods into space has been very expensive. While it could easily be assumed that this is due to the vast amounts of fuel that it takes to get into space, this is in fact not the case. Rather, the reason that putting objects in orbit is so expensive is that rockets (with the exception of the now-retired Space Shuttle) are single-use vehicles, which are destroyed upon falling back to Earth.
SpaceX hopes to change this by creating rockets which can be easily reused. To do this they the have built smaller retro-rockets into the lower stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, allowing it to make a soft landing, and then be rapidly refuelled and re-launched back into space. In the future the company also wants this to expand into their other launch vehicles, in a process which they hope could bring the price per kilo launched into orbit down by an order of magnitude.
This latest test proves that this technology can work, and builds on early work by the company on its ‘Grasshopper’ rocket testbed. While the company’s next two launches are to orbits higher than Low-Earth, and thus the rocket cannot be retrieved, the company still plans to attempt a landing on a solid surface later this year.
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