After months of prepping up, and a couple of failed launches, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has finally achieved a major breakthrough when it was recently able to recover the Falcon 9 rocket booster after it carried 11 satellites into space and deployed them successfully in the low-earth orbit.
This was the third such attempt of SpaceX this year after the two failed attempts in January and April. This time, instead of using a robotic barg in the middle of Atlantic Ocean, SpaceX used terra firma and a massive concrete landing pad on which the rocket booster landed after 10 minutes of its launching.
The whole event took place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
What this could potentially mean for space technology as a whole is that the cost involved in space launching can be reduced by a huge margin by these reusable rockets. According to an estimate by SpaceX founder Elon Musk himself, it takes about $16 million to manufacture the Falcon 9, but only $200,000 to fuel.
SpaceX has been trying for a long time to land the Falcon 9 rockets. In a way, it had already successfully tested the system by small rockets called the Grasshoper. These rockets had managed to reach new heights from several hundred feet to sub-orbit flight before returning to Earth and landing vertically.
Falcon 9, on the contrary, is a two stage rocket and SpaceX was trying to recover the large booster stage part which houses the main engines and most of the fuel. This part breaks from the other payload carrying capsule in the sub-orbital space before falling back to Earth.
Just a month ago, Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, also successfully performed the landing of a space rocket called New Shepheard which had gone into ‘space’. However, the success of Blue origin propelled Bezos to assume, that this was SpaceX’s first ever successful launch — a comment which has already attracted tons of memes and what not on Twitter. We’ll talk more on this, later.
On a serious note though, there are quite significant differences between Falcon 9 and New Shepheard.
Firstly, the goals of both the rockets are entirely different as one is meant for orbital spaceflight and the other for sub-orbital space flight. Falcon 9 is meant for more serious business of launching payloads into orbit around the Earth and beyond.
New Shepherd is not meant for such long flights and is designed for taking people into sub-orbital space for about four minutes.
The different goals naturally have led to different designs and structure of both space rockets. The 15-story Falcon 9 is powered by 1.5 million pounds of thrust produced by its 9 engines which enable it to reach its booster stage part up to 124 miles up.
New Shepheard, which is designed to go only 63 miles or so upwards, is powered by the maximum thrust of 100,000 pounds. It reached a maximum velocity Mach 3 during its trip, whereas the Falcon 9’s first stage reached between Mach 5.5 and Mach 7.5 before falling back.
Nevertheless, the back-to-back successes of two private spaceflight companies show a promising future for the space flight agencies, especially in terms of the costs saved by reusable rockets. And it will be interesting to see if the reusable rockets can bring a long-term financial relief to the ambitious venture of Musk.