Hitting a Bullseye From Orbit: SpaceX’s Automated Landing System.

Reducing the cost of getting things into orbit isn’t easy, as the still extremely high cost of getting cargo to orbit can attest. For the most part this is because of the enormous energy requirement for getting things out of Earth’s gravity well and nearly all launch systems today being single use. Thus the areas where there are efficiencies to be gained are somewhat limited, that is unless we start finding novel methods of getting things into orbit. Without question SpaceX is at the forefront of this movement, having designed some of the most efficient rocket engines to date. Their next project is something truly novel, one that could potentially drop the total cost of their launches significantly.

autonomous_spaceport_drone_ship

Pictured above is SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone, essentially a giant flat barge  that’s capable of holding its position steady in the sea thanks to some onboard thrusters, the same many deployable oil rigs use. At first glance the purpose of such a craft seems unclear as what use could they have for a giant flat surface out in the middle of the ocean? Well as it turns out they’re modifying their current line of Falcon rockets to be able to land on such a barge, allowing the first stage of the rocket to be reused at a later date. In fact they’ve been laying the foundations of this system for some time now, having tested it on their recent ORBCOMM mission this year.

Hitting a bullseye like that, which is some 100m x 30m, coming back from orbit is no simple task. Currently SpaceX is only able to get their landing radius down to an area of 10KM or so, several orders of magnitude higher than what the little platform provides. Even with the platform being able to move and with the new Falcon rockets being given little wings to control the descent SpaceX doesn’t put their chances higher than 50% of getting a successful landing the first time around. Still whilst the opportunity for first time success might be low SpaceX is most definitely up to the challenge and it’ll only be a matter of time before they get it.

The reason why this is such a big deal is that any stage of the rocket that can be recovered and reused drastically reduces the costs of future launches. Many people think that the fuel would likely be the most expensive part of the rocket however that’s not the case, it’s most often all the other components which are the main drivers of cost for these launch systems. Thus if a good percentage of that craft is fully reusable you can avoid incurring that cost on every launch and, potentially, reduce turnaround times as well. All of these lead to a far more efficient program that can drive costs down, something that’s needed if we want to make space more accessible.

It just goes to show how innovative SpaceX is and how lucky the space industry is to have them. A feat like this has never been attempted before and the benefits of such a system would reach far across all space based industries. I honestly can’t wait to see how it goes and, hopefully, see the first automated landing from space onto a sea platform ever.

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