Early on Saturday morning, the ambitious private space transportation company SpaceX attempted an audacious experiment that had never been tried previously: landing a portion of a rocket safely back on Earth so that it can be re-used. While part of the mission was a success, unfortunately the rocket slammed a tad too hard onto its landing pad and was smashed into bits.
“Close, but no cigar,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted. “Bodes well for the future tho’.”
Lift-off of the Falcon 9 rocket successfully took place from Cape Canaversal, Florida, at 04:47 on Saturday. The vehicle’s primary goal was to supply some 2,269 kilograms (5,000 pounds) of cargo to the orbiting International Space Station, including groceries, experiments, equipment and belated Christmas presents for the astronauts. Succeeding in this hefty delivery is particularly important given the recent explosion of another supply ship, the Antares rocket, which obliterated the entire payload.
The supplies were contained in SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which was carried in the vehicle’s second stage. The first stage is around 14 stories tall and contains the engines and the majority of the rocket’s fuel. Shortly after lift-off, the two stages separated and the cargo ship was confirmed in orbit.
Following detachment, the vehicle’s main booster reignited as planned and a controlled return was attempted with the assistance of hypersonic grid fins for guidance and landing legs. A series of automatic engine firings successfully maneuvered the first stage towards its landing pad, the 90-by-50 meter (300-by-170 foot) deck of an autonomous spaceport ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean.
While the rocket managed to hit the target, which was an impressive feat to say the least, unfortunately it came down a little too hard. According to Musk, the ship didn’t sustain too much damage and can be repaired; however, the same cannot be said for the rocket, which is now in pieces.
Because it was dark and foggy, SpaceX wasn’t able to obtain decent footage of the landing or the impact. However, it was later revealed that the fins ran out of hydraulic fluid just before landing. Undeterred by the failed attempt, SpaceX is already planning another landing experiment next month, which will have 50% more hydraulic fluid.
The reason that SpaceX is attempting to land part of their rockets is because it could ultimately save a lot of money. Traditionally, rockets are intended for one use only and after the payload is detached, the heavy engines and propellant are dumped. The discarded parts then either burn up during reentry or smash into the ocean. SpaceX believes that if parts can be recycled, costs will be cut because each mission will no longer require a brand new rocket.
“If SpaceX is successful in reducing the cost by 50% or more, more space applications become possible—more satellites, more benefits and services to society from space, for example space solar power, and potentially more astronauts,” said Rocket Lab’s director Dr. Adam Baker.
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of using second-hand rockets, however, and some have pointed out that rocket engines are only responsible for about a third of the total cost, meaning that with repairs and refurbishment, missions may not ultimately be much cheaper.