SpaceX to launch refurbished rocket
American space flight company SpaceX are set to launch a refurbished rocket later today and if all goes to plan then it will fire the starting gun on a revolution.
The Falcon 9 launcher will carry a 5.3 tonne satellite, called SES-10, into space on behalf of Luxembourg based communications giant SES. The launch will take place at the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and if deployed successfully, the satellite will deliver a range of communications and satellite services to the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The booster will then aim to successfully re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land on an autonomous spaceport drone ship called ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ in the Atlantic Ocean.
But for once the subsequent safe landing is not the main story, because if SpaceX deploys the satellite successfully then it will make history.
For as long as humans have been sending rockets into space the idea of reusing the booster has been a sort of holy grail for the industry. The enormous cost of designing, building and launching a rocket is in large part down to the fact that they are single use. When your booster burns up in the atmosphere or sinks into the sea after every launch you have to build everything anew, and that is expensive. Imagine if an aeroplane was one use only. Mass air travel would be infeasible.
SpaceX aims to change the current state of play with today’s launch.
The booster used in the Falcon 9 set to take the SES satellite into orbit was first flown 11 months ago when it delivered vital supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The first step on the journey to full reusability is retrieving the booster after it has lifted a payload into orbit. SpaceX recovered this particular booster by landing it on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
The 11 month refurbishment process has been lengthy – as you would expect when you take into account that this has never been done before – but the Falcon 9 is now ready to fly again.
The cost of launching something into space is prohibitive, but reusable space craft would slash this by orders of magnitude. Efficiency can also be improved drastically if you don’t have to build a new rocket each time. As the refurbishment process is optimised, the time between launches will reduce and more ISS supplies or satellites can be put into orbit. More ambitious goals such as the Moon or Mars can be seriously considered as well.
So if SpaceX successfully pulls off a launch of a reusable rocket then we will step into a new era in the history of human spaceflight. It will arguably be the most important step we have taken since Apollo 17, commanded by Eugene Cernan, landed on the Moon in 1972. We have not been back to deep space since and the human space flight programme has stagnated. A reusable rocket would be a shot in the arm for the industry and could pave the way to a future beyond Earth.
No one has ever done what SpaceX is planning to do today. Not NASA, not the ESA, not Roscosmos. Tonight at 18:27 EDT (22:27 GMT, 23:27 BST) we can see history being made in real time. This is one to stay up late for.