No doubt you have heard about the successful test of SpaceX’s vertically landing rocket on the 21st; it was a triumph. There were two main goals of the mission. The first was to deliver a payload of 11 satellites into orbit and the second was to have the main rocket engine return to the Cape Canaveral launch site in a controlled reentry so that it could be used again. Both were a resounding success.
The reason Elon Musk and his SpaceX company have poured billions of dollars into this project is that, currently, space travel is expensive, like crazy expensive. To lift 1kg of payload into orbit currently costs in the order of $20,000 to get it there. If you have a payload of several tonnes, as is frequently the case, then the cost rapidly sky rockets. Pun intended.
One way that missions may become less expensive in the future is if we can reuse some of the main components. The plan, then, involved the main engine holding back some its fuel so that it could perform a back burn to return it to the launchpad. This didn’t involve it simply going back down vertically to where it had started, it had travelled several hundred kilometres to the east and so needed to return west as well as control its descent.
Crucially, it had to have a soft landing so that it could be reused for a future launch. That next launch will be the real test. If the old rocket is deemed fit for use and can survive a second use then we can truly say that the mission has passed the test. SpaceX did a live video feed of the whole mission which is now available on YouTube. The complete thing is about 45 minutes long but if you want to cut to the chase then go to 31:20 to see the landing; I got goosebumps the first time I watched it. If I’ve done this right then the video should kick in at the exact right point.
The employees of SpaceX get understandably excited as the mission comes to fruition. Earlier this year their last mission ended in an explosive catastrophe so it was great to see this one go so spectacularly well. Those of you who watched that video watched history being made.