If there’s one thing that SpaceX has shown us is that landing a rocket from space onto a barge in the middle of the ocean is, well, hard. Whilst they’ve successfully landed one of their Falcon-9 first stages on land not all of their launches will match that profile, hence the requirement for their drone barge. However that barge presents its own set of challenges although the last 2 failed attempts were due to a lack of hydraulic fluid and slower than expected throttle response. Their recent launch, which was delivering the Jason 3 earth observation satellite into orbit, managed to land successfully again however failed to stay upright at the last minute.
Elon stated that the failure was due to one of the lockout collets (basically a clamp) not locking properly on one of the legs. Looking at the video above you can see which one of those legs is the culprit as you can see it sliding forward and ultimately collapsing underneath. The current thinking is that the failure was due to icing caused by heavy fog at liftoff although a detailed analysis has not yet been conducted. Thankfully this time around the pieces they have to look at are a little bigger than last times rather catastrophic explosion.
Whilst it might seem like landing on a drone ship is always doomed to failure we have to remember that this is what the early stages of NASA and other space programmes looked like. Keeping a rocket like that upright under its own strength, on a moving barge no less, is a difficult endeavour and the fact that they’ve managed to successfully land twice (but fail to remain upright) shows that they’re most of the way there. I’m definitely looking forward to their next attempt as there’s a very high likelihood of that one finally succeeding.
The payload it launched is part of the Ocean Surface Topography from Space mission which aims to map the height of the earth’s oceans over time. It joins one of its predecessors (Jason-2) and combined they will be able to map approximately 95% of the ice-free oceans in the world every 10 days. This allows researchers to study climate effects, providing forecasting for cyclones and even tracking animals. Jason-3 will enable much more high resolution data to be captured and paves the way for a future, single mission that will be planned to replace both of the current Jason series satellites.
SpaceX is rapidly decreasing the access costs to space and once they perfect the first stage landing on both sea and land they’ll be able to push it down even further. Hopefully they’ll extend this technology to their larger family of boosters, once of which is scheduled to be test flown later this year. That particular rocket will reduce launch costs by a factor of 4, getting us dangerously close to the $1,000/KG limit that, when achieved, will be the start of a new era of space access for all.
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.
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.