Reusable Rockets Could Dramatically Change Spaceflight

Published: January 3, 2015 6:29 PM /


SpaceX-2 Mission Launch

The spacecraft manufacturing company, SpaceX, will put a potentially groundbreaking new technology to the test in a spaceflight scheduled for Tuesday next week. The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to resupply the International Space Station, but what is possibly even more important is that it will be the first test of a new system that could allow the reuse of rocket boosters. These reusable rockets could save tens of millions of dollars on future spaceflights.

The way multistage rockets work is that there are self-contained sections of a spacecraft, which have their own fuel and engines, that can be detached when the fuel is expended and they are no longer needed, so that the weight of the entire craft is reduced. These rocket boosters will then fall into the ocean, where they can not be retrieved or reused again. This is a huge waste of resources, which could be avoided if there was a system for reusing the rockets.

Early last year SpaceX experimented with the idea of reducing the rocket's speed on reentry so that it could still land in the ocean, but maintain structural integrity, so that it could be reused, but the idea proved unworkable. The new plan they came up with is to have the rocket land upright, on a platform floating on the ocean.

The company developed what it called X-wings, which will deploy on reentry, and will allow the rocket booster to steer itself. It will then use GPS technology to guide it to the destination. This system will require great precision to be successful. The rocket itself is 70 feet wide, and the target its attempting to land on, is about 3 times that, so there will be little margin for error.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk estimates that the chance of success is about 50%. However this is only the first test of the system. Even if it fails they will still continue perfecting the system, and testing it, until it is reliable. Musk states that there are a dozen launches scheduled over the next year and it is close to 90% likely that one of them will succeed and be reusable.

What effects do you think this technology will have on the space industry? Share your thoughts below.


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| Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.