SpaceX for Dummies
by: Justin Wang
Elon Musk’s SpaceX program, as we covered in a previous article when Musk launched his Tesla Roadster into orbit, has reached new and greater heights with their triple booster return on April 11th. Lifting off from Canaveral, the new and improved Falcon Heavy with a payload of Arabsat 6A (a middle comsat) successfully stuck a 3-booster landing and released its payload into LEO successfully.
Wait - what does any of that mean?
SpaceX’s new super-heavy lifter promises to be the future of rocket launches. A lifter, in rocketry terms, is a rocket booster to get a payload (the satellite, normally) into orbit around Earth. With the recent fall-off in both funding for NASA and progress in the manufacturing of large lifters (most of the supplies given to the International Space Station, or the ISS, go through Russian launches), NASA has turned to the private sector to finance future expeditions to the Moon or Mars - and SpaceX, one of the largest of these private companies, never fails to impress.
In the past months, SpaceX has started working on a new booster return technology, allowing the normally-discarded stages of earlier rockets to be recovered, in the most stylish way possible - a computer-guided return back to landing pads only meters away from the launchpad, as depicted. Although SpaceX has mastered the art of the return of the two smaller booster rockets on their Falcon Heavy rocket, they have yet to return the main central booster engine. On April 11th, all this changed when the Falcon Heavy’s central core (along with the two smaller boosters) was successfully returned onto a barge in the Atlantic Ocean. The two side boosters would be re-used for the next launch, whereas the central core would be dismantled and recycled into the next central booster for the next launch. This technology has the potential to change the future of rocketry, and make launches cheaper and more accessessible, a goal space programs have been working towards for years.
Smaller boosters, when they land on the remotely-controlled barges, are secured to the deck with a custom robot. In true SpaceX fashion, although the engineers were able to stick one of the most complicated and impressive landings in the history of rocketry, robot wasn’t updated to be compatible with the core rocket, and the booster tipped over during some choppy weather. Stick the landing, miss the return.