Elon Musk’s SpaceX continues to push the boundaries of space travel, demonstrating the private sector as a viable alternative to state-run space agencies.
On December 16, SpaceX will launch its robotic Dragon capsule from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to the International Space Station (ISS). So far, standard procedure. However this time around it will attempt to bring the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket back down to Earth, coming to rest on a floating platform in the Atlantic.
If the company can successfully develop the reusable rocket technology, founder Elon Musk claims that the cost of spaceflight could be reduced by a factor of 100, possibly making the colonization of Mars economically viable.
SpaceX’s new technology
In a Twitter post last month, Musk uploaded photos of the Falcon 9 and its landing platform, which increased interest in the 5th of 12 cargo flights that SpaceX is undertaking to resupply the ISS. The company has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for the flights.
“Autonomous spaceport drone ship. Thrusters repurposed from deep sea oil rigs hold position within 3m even in a storm,” Musk tweeted on November 22. “Base is 300 ft by 100 ft, with wings that extend width to 170 ft. Will allow refuel & rocket flyback in future,” he later added.
The Falcon 9 will feature “grid fins” which are deployed on reentry to increase stability. According to Musk, “each fin moves independently for pitch/yaw/roll.” He gave the landing an estimated 50% chance of success on the first attempt, improving with each new attempt.
Musk spoke at the “AeroAstro at 100” conference at MIT in October, celebrating a century of aerospace research at MIT, claimed that the company is “quite close” to landing and relaunching a rocket. Recent flights have seen a progression in the capabilities of the Falcon 9.
Three soft ocean landings have been made in the past 18 months, with successful controlled landings made on the last two attempts. This will be the first time that a platform is waiting to receive the rocket upon reentry. If SpaceX can consistently land and relaunch the Falcon 9 it will usher in an exciting new era in affordable space travel.