Rocket Lab Sets Their Sights On Rapid Reusability By Snagging Rockets In Mid-Air With A Helicopter

Not so very long ago, orbital rockets simply didn’t get reused. After their propellants were expended on the journey to orbit, they petered out and fell back down into the ocean where they were obliterated on impact. Rockets were disposable because, as far as anyone could tell, building another one was cheaper and easier than trying to reuse them. The Space Shuttle had proved that reuse of a spacecraft and its booster was possible, but the promised benefits of reduced cost and higher launch cadence never materialized. If anything, the Space Shuttle was often considered proof that reusability made more sense on paper than it did in the real-world.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with Electron rocket

But that was before SpaceX started routinely landing and reflying the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster. Nobody outside the company really knows how much money is being saved by reuse, but there’s no denying the turn-around time from landing to reflight is getting progressively shorter. Moreover, by performing up to three flights on the same booster, SpaceX is demonstrating a launch cadence that is simply unmatched in the industry.

So it should come as no surprise to find that other launch providers are feeling the pressure to develop their own reusability programs. The latest to announce their intent to recover and eventually refly their vehicle is Rocket Lab, despite CEO Peter Beck’s admission that he was originally against the idea. He’s certainly changed his tune. With data collected over the last several flights the company now believes they have a reusability plan that’s compatible with the unique limitations of their diminutive Electron launch vehicle.

According to Beck, the goal isn’t necessarily to save money. During his presentation at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah, he explained that what they’re really going after is an increase in flight frequency. Right now they can build and fly an Electron every month, and while they eventually hope to produce a rocket a week, even a single reuse per core would have a huge impact on their annual launch capability:

If we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities. So launch frequency is really the main driver for why Electron is going reusable. In time, hopefully we can obviously reduce prices as well. But the fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency. Even if I can get the stage back once, I’ve effectively doubled my production ratio.

But, there’s a catch. Electron is too small to support the addition of landing legs and doesn’t have the excess propellants to use its engines during descent. Put simply, the tiny rocket is incapable of landing itself. So Rocket Lab believes the only way to recover the Electron is by snatching it out of the air before it gets to the ground.

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There And Back Again: A Falcon 9 Launch Story

It’s true that I’m not known for keeping particularly regular hours, but even I had my doubts about this plan. We’d go to sleep around midnight, wake up at 3 AM, drive up the coast aimlessly, then turn around and attend a full-day event where we’d have to maintain at least some semblance of professionalism. It was a bad idea, terrible even. But there I was at 11:30 PM sitting in a Waffle House with Thomas, the Supplyframe videographer, getting dangerously close to signing off on it.

Officially we were there to cover the Cornell Cup Finals being held at Kennedy Space Center, but as it so happens, our arrival in Florida perfectly coincided with the launch of CRS-17, SpaceX’s latest International Space Station resupply mission. Technically this was not part of our assignment. But really, what choice did we have?

Even if our respective bosses didn’t see it as a wasted opportunity, we had to consider the locals. In the few hours we’d been here, it seemed the launch was all anyone wanted to talk about. Everyone from the airport shuttle driver to the waitress who brought us our hash browns reminded us a rocket would be lifting off soon. If we didn’t go, then come Friday afternoon we’d be the only people in Cape Canaveral who didn’t have a personal account of the event. By all indications, an unforgivable cultural faux pas in central Florida.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that we didn’t actually need any convincing to go on this adventure. We had the supreme good fortune of finding ourselves in the vicinity of Kennedy Space Center a few hours before they were going to send a rocket thundering off into the black, and there was no way we could just sleep through it. No, there was never any choice in the matter. We were going.

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When New Space Loses Out To NASA Pragmatism

You’ve got to admit, things have been going exceptionally well for SpaceX. In the sixteen years they’ve been in operation, they’ve managed to tick off enough space “firsts” to make even established aerospace players blush. They’re the first privately owned company to not only design and launch their own orbital-class rocket, but to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. The first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket is the world’s only orbital booster capable of autonomous landing and reuse, and their Falcon Heavy has the highest payload capacity of any operational launch system. All of which they’ve managed to do at a significantly lower cost than their competition.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V

So it might come as a surprise to hear that SpaceX recently lost out on a lucrative NASA launch contract to the same entrenched aerospace corporations they’ve been running circles around for the last decade. It certainly seems to have come as a surprise to SpaceX, at least. Their bid to launch NASA’s Lucy mission on the Falcon 9 was so much lower than the nearly $150 million awarded to United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a flight on their Atlas V that the company has decided to formally protest the decision. Publicly questioning a NASA contract marks another “first” for the company, and a sign that SpaceX’s confidence in their abilities has reached the point that they’re no longer content to be treated as a minor player compared to heavyweights like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

But this isn’t the first time NASA has opted to side with more established partners, even in the face of significantly lower bids by “New Space” companies. Their decision not to select Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane for the Commercial Crew program in 2014, despite it being far cheaper than Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, triggered a similar protest to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). In the end, the GAO determined that Boeing’s experience and long history justified the higher sticker price of their spacecraft compared to the relative newcomer.

NASA has yet to officially explain their decision to go with ULA over SpaceX for the Lucy mission, but in light of what we know about the contract, it seems a safe bet they’ll tell SpaceX the same thing they told Sierra Nevada in 2014. The SpaceX bid might be lower, but in the end, NASA’s is willing to pay more to know it will get done right. Which begs the question: at what point are the cost savings not compelling enough to trust an important scientific mission (or human lives) to these rapidly emerging commercial space companies?

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Let’s Talk About Elon Musk’s Submarine

When word first broke that Elon Musk was designing a kid-sized submarine to help rescue the children stuck in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave, it seemed like a logical thing for Hackaday to cover. An eccentric builder of rockets and rocket-launched electric sports cars, pushing his engineering teams and not inconsiderable financial resources into action to save children? All of that talk about Elon being a real life Tony Stark was about to turn from meme into reality; if the gambit paid off, the world might have it’s first true superhero.

With human lives in the balance, and success of the rescue attempt far from assured (regardless of Elon’s involvement), we didn’t feel like playing arm-chair engineer at the time. Everyone here at Hackaday is thankful that due to the heroics of the rescuers, including one who paid the ultimate price, all thirteen lives were saved.

Many said it couldn’t be done, others said even saving half of the children would have been a miracle. But Elon’s submarine, designed and built at a breakneck pace and brought to Thailand while some of the children were still awaiting rescue, laid unused. It wasn’t Elon’s advanced technology that made the rescue possible, it was the tenacity of the human spirit.

Now, with the rescue complete and the children well on their way to returning to their families, one is left wondering about Elon’s submarine. Could it have worked?

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SpaceX’s Next Giant Leap: Second Stage Recovery

With the successful launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite on May 11th, the final version of the Falcon 9 rocket has finally become operational. Referred to as the “Block 5”, this version of the rocket is geared specifically towards reuse. The lessons learned from the recovery and reflight of earlier builds of the F9 have culminated into rocket that SpaceX hopes can go from recovery to its next flight in as few as 24 hours. If any rocket will make good on the dream of spaceflight becoming as routine as air travel, it’s going to be the Falcon 9 Block 5.

While there might still be minor tweaks and improvements made to Block 5 over the coming years, it’s safe to say that first stage recovery of the Falcon 9 has been all but perfected. What was once the fodder of campy science fiction, rockets propulsively lowering themselves down from the sky and coming to rest on spindly landing legs that popped out of the sides, is now a reality. More importantly, not only is SpaceX able to bring the towering first stage back from space reliably, they’re able to refuel it, inspect it, and send it back up without having to build a new one for each mission.

But as incredible a technical accomplishment as this is, SpaceX still isn’t recovering the entire Falcon 9 rocket. At best, they have accomplished the same type of partial reusability that the Space Shuttle demonstrated on its first flight all the way back in 1981. Granted they are doing it much faster and cheaper than it was done on the Shuttle, but it still goes against the classic airplane analogy: if you had to replace a huge chunk of the airliner every time it landed, commercial air travel would be completely impractical.

SpaceX has already started experimenting with recovering and reusing the payload fairings of the Falcon 9, and while they haven’t pulled it off yet, they’ll probably get there. That leaves only one piece of the Falcon 9 unaccounted for: the second stage. Bringing the second stage back to Earth in one piece might well be the most challenging aspect of developing the Falcon 9. But if SpaceX can do it, then they’ll have truly developed humanity’s first fully reusable rocket, capable of delivering payloads to space for little more than the cost of fuel.

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Space Garbage Truck Takes Out The Trash

On April 2nd, 2018 a Falcon 9 rocketed skywards towards the International Space Station. The launch itself went off without a hitch, and the Dragon spacecraft delivered its payload of supplies and spare parts. But alongside the usual deliveries, CRS-14 brought a particularly interesting experiment to the International Space Station.

Developed by the University of Surrey, RemoveDEBRIS is a demonstration mission that aims to test a number of techniques for tackling the increasingly serious problem of “space junk”. Earth orbit is filled with old spacecraft and bits of various man-made hardware that have turned some areas of space into a literal minefield. While there have been plenty of ideas floated as to how to handle this growing issue, RemoveDEBRIS will be testing some of these methods under real-world conditions.

The RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft will do this by launching two CubeSats as test targets, which it will then (hopefully) eliminate in a practical demonstration of what’s known as Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology. If successful, these techniques could eventually become standard operating procedure on future missions.

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SpaceX Joins In The Long History Of Catching Stuff From Space

On February 22nd, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and successfully delivered into orbit an Earth-observation satellite operated by the Spanish company Hisdesat. Compared to the media coverage received by the launch of the Tesla-laden Falcon Heavy earlier in the month, this mission got very little attention. But that’s hardly surprising. With respect to Hisdesat, the payload this time around was not terribly exciting, and even the normally dramatic landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage was skipped in favor of simply allowing the booster to crash into the ocean.

As far as SpaceX launches go, this one was about as low-key as they come. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this is the first time some readers are even hearing about it. But while it didn’t invoke the same media circus as the images of a spacesuit-wearing mannequin traveling into deep space, there was still a historic “first” performed during this mission.

In an effort to increase the re-usability of the Falcon 9 booster, SpaceX attempted to catch the payload fairing (essentially a large protective nose cone) with a huge net as it fell from space. The most interesting thing about this new chapter in the quest for a fully reusable rocket system is that while SpaceX is generally considered to be pioneers in the world of bringing hardware back from space, this particular trick dates all the way back to the 1960’s.

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