Ups and Downs Continue for SpaceX
Just a few years ago, space launches were few and far between, and were seen as major events around the world. As more private contractors make contributions to space travel, both test and final launches are occurring more frequently—even days apart, as recently showcased by SpaceX.
SpaceX is leading the forefront with launches of both their Falcon 9 rocket, which is used to launch Starlink satellites, and with testing of their Starship craft, which is a prototype geared toward expanding the capability of human space travel.
On March 4, SpaceX launched Falcon 9 for the eighth time, sending another 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. The craft safely return to earth on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You.”
One of the hallmarks of SpaceX craft is their reusability. As captured by Amy Thompson space.com, upon the successful drone ship landing, SpaceX engineer Youmei Zhou stated, “This will mark our 75th successful recovery of an orbital class rocket and the eighth recovery of this particular booster.”
Reusable craft provides both financial and environmental benefits, and the automated aspects of craft such as Falcon 9 greatly reduce the risk of injuries to humans. Though nearly all Falcon 9 landings have been successful, if they’re not, landing on an unmanned drone ship in the ocean removes the chance of human injury for satellite launches.
According to Thompson, the Falcon 9 is the second craft in SpaceX’s fleet to launch and land eight times.
“The company said that it expected each booster to fly a minimum of 10 times with little to no refurbishments between flights and as many as 100 times before retirement,” reported Thompson.
While SpaceX continues to add satellites to the Starlink constellation, with the goal of providing world-wide high speed, low latency internet, that is not their only area of focus. Through their prototype Starship craft, SpaceX aims to facilitate space travel from the moon and Mars.
On December 9, 2020, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called the test flight and explosive landing of SN8 a success, stating on Twitter, “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed!”
Musk often refers to explosions as Rapid Unplanned Disassembly (RUD) and takes those instances as learning experiences. Each RUD leads to the opportunity to make changes and subsequently a greater chance at success on the next launch.
The February 2, 2021 launch of SN9 ended in similar – but not exactly the same – results, ending in another RUD, but a closer-to-successful landing and more lessons to be learned and applied.
On March 3, with their SN10 launch, SpaceX managed to land the Starship successfully for the first time. However, about eight minutes after landing, S10 suffered the same final conclusion as its earlier prototypes, exploding on the landing pad.
The cause of the explosion is still under investigation, but there is no doubt SpaceX will take the data gathered and apply more changes to future prototypes. According to NBC News, SpaceX has plans for the first orbital Starship flight later this year, with plans for a trip around the moon in 2023.
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