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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

SpaceX plans to reuse a rocket booster for launch for the first time on Thursday

By Phil Plait
Falcon 9 launch of CRS-8

[The launch of CRS-8 in 2016 was followed by the booster landing; that booster is due to fly again this week. Credit: SpaceX]

UPDATE, March 30, 2017 at 23:00 UTC: SUCCESS! At 18:27 Eastern time, the Falcon 9 rocket used a previously launched first stage booster took off from the Kennedy launch complex in Florida. Just over 9 minutes later that same first stage landed for a second time on a floating platform in the Atlantic. This shows that SpaceX can indeed reuse a booster, with a potential cost saving for launches of tens of millions of dollars. This is a dramatic step forward in space exploration, and my congratulations to the company for achieving it! 

SpaceX reused Falcon 9 booster sits on the floating drone ship in the Atlantic

SpaceX has a history of flashy achievements, but this week — hopefully, Thursday evening — the rocket company will attempt something that’s perhaps their biggest step yet:

They will try to launch a satellite into orbit reusing a rocket booster flown on a previous launch.

This is a very big deal, indeed. One of the major components of Elon Musk’s ambitious plan to lower launch costs is the ability to reuse the first stage booster of the Falcon 9 rocket. Right now, buying a ride on a Falcon 9 launch costs about $60 million dollars (at least), and that could drop by as much as 30% if the first stage comes from a previous flight*.

The booster for this week’s flight was first flown in April 2016, launching a Dragon capsule loaded with supplies up the International Space Station. That was, in fact, the very first time SpaceX landed a booster at sea.

Like all first stage boosters, new or used, it’s undergone extensive tests. After being cleaned up and readied for flight, it was test-fired successfully at the SpaceX Texas facility in late January. For this test the booster is bolted down vertically on a pad, and all nine Merlin engines fired up for a full duration “hot fire test”. This is a three-minute burn, the length of time the engines actually burn during a launch. After the test, the booster for this week's launch was moved to Cape Canaveral, the second stage booster attached on top, and then on Monday underwent a “static fire” burn, a firing of its engines for several seconds.

Apparently all went as planned, and everything is go for a launch, with the 2.5 hour window opening at 22:00 UTC (18:00 Eastern US time) on Thursday, March 30.

Falcon 9 booster test

The payload will be SES-10, a communications satellite that will deliver broadcasting and broadband service to Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. The launch was originally planned for late 2016, but was delayed. Now, though, the satellite is fueled up (to raise its orbit after launch) and has been loaded into the spacecraft fairing, ready to be mounted atop the rocket. After launch it will go to a geostationary orbit.

As for the booster, it will return to Earth for a second time, hopefully setting down once again on the floating autonomous drone ship named Of Course I Still Love You — Musk named the drones after spaceships with sentient AIs in a book by scifi author Iain M. Banks. The booster will then be strapped down and returned to the Cape for more testing. It may even fly again; SpaceX hasn’t said what they plan to do with it yet.

I imagine this launch will be watched eagerly by a lot of people. Not just the usual space enthusiasts, of course, but also by professionals in the space sector. If SpaceX pulls this off, it could mark a revolution in launch services. I’ll note that Blue Origin is building big reusable rockets as well (and they may be planning tests of their powerful new BE-4 engines very soon too), and SpaceX still hopes to fly the much larger Falcon Heavy later this year.

Mind you, this isn’t the first time a rocket will ever have been reused; the Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters — the two white rockets attached on either side to the orange external fuel tank — were commonly reused. The difference here is that the Shuttle SRBs used solid fuel, which is more difficult to clean up after use than liquid propellant, and also the SRBs were dropped into the ocean, which was not only hard on them physically but also caused a lot of corrosion by salt water. The SpaceX booster lands either on that floating platform at sea or back at the launch facility, so it doesn’t undergo the same punishing conditions.

Also, although heavily promoted initially as a big feature of the Shuttle to reduce cost, reusing the SRBs actually wound up costing about as much money (if not more) than simply building new ones due to the complicated logistics involved.

Of course, at the time, this was still revolutionary. And the engineering learned went into the process of building the Falcon 9, which, in my opinion, is as it should be. NASA is a government agency, and has enough money and people to be able to experiment and find the best ways to approach problems. Private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others can then use that knowledge gained to make the process leaner and more flexible. It’s a great marriage of public and private sector, and one I hope will open up the skies to humanity.

But, first things first. The weather is a little iffy right now for the Thursday launch, but a backup window opens Friday, as well. You can watch it live on the SpaceX streaming channel and on their YouTube channel. I expect I’ll be live-tweeting it as well. Follow along!

* Reusing a first stage means not having to build one from scratch. The added costs including time/wages to bring the landed booster back to the factory, cleaning it, inspecting it, refurbishing it as needed, and refueling it. The total cost of all this has not been released (though Musk has said that the fuel runs about $200k), but it’s certainly much less than building a new booster.