What Has SpaceX Been Up To?

Besides low Earth orbit (LEO)? Besides geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO)?

The “usual,” if you define “usual” as doing things routinely that a year ago no one had ever even dared to try.

1 – They’re retrieving their first stage boosters, landing them either on land near the launch site or on barges out in the middle of the ocean. (This is orders of magnitude beyond anything that anyone else is doing.)

2 – They’re re-using those boosters to launch new missions. (The Space Shuttle re-flew, and some of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRB) were recovered and refurbished, but only with MUCH higher cost and MUCH longer turn around times.)

3 – They’re launching much more often than anyone else. For example, they launched on Friday from Florida (see pictures below) and they’ll try to launch tomorrow afternoon from California.

Yesterday’s launch was another tough one, with the booster coming back for landing from a very high altitude and energy condition, requiring it to have a large delta-V and to endure a lot of stress on re-entry. Elon Musk thought this might lead to a failure to recover the booster. It might be a “learning experience.” (And that’s another thing – that’s not just a euphemism. The folks at SpaceX are willing to take acceptable risks in order to push the envelope and learn how to do the hard things. That takes guts.)

All images from the SpaceX webcast:

It was a gorgeous day for a launch. Note that this booster launched out of Vandenberg in California on January 14, 2017, so the turnaround between launches was only 161 days.

As the rocket rises, the exhaust plume expands (much less air pressure to push against) and you can start to see the nine separate plumes from the nine engines.

Happiness is the Earth in your rear view mirror!

Looking up from the top of the first stage (left) we see the second stage (right) starting to fire.

The first stage (left) doesn’t have time to sightsee – it’s got a barge to catch. The grid fins pop out and act to steer in the atmosphere, much like you can “steer” with your hands out the car window as you’re driving along. The grid fins might look small, but they’re something like six feet square, similar in size to a king sized mattress. The second stage engine (right) starts to heat up…

…to the point where it’s glowing cherry red hot. The first stage does another burn with some of its nine engines to put it on a course to fall (with style!) down onto the recovery barge.

The first stage camera (sometimes) gets covered with soot and debris from the rockets, as well as condensation as it gets back into the lower atmosphere. But you can still see the grid fins glowing, getting red hot from the air friction. (Hopefully your hands out the car window don’t get this hot.)

The second stage is pressing on to orbit. While the launch and first stage recovery are spectacular, this is the part that pays the bills and lets them do it again and again and again.

The SpaceX barge in the Atlantic Ocean is “Of Course I Still Love You,” seen here just seconds before the first stage landing. (We lost video during the actual time of landing, in large part due to the interference of having a freaking rocket come down from space on a pillar of fire!)

That’s terrible, isn’t it? I mean, they missed the bullseye by at least eight or ten feet! On a more serious note, you can see that the rocket is leaning just a bit. This was one of the hardest landings and the booster came down fast, hitting the deck hard. That’s okay – the legs are designed to absorb a decent amount of energy in a hard landing. We’ll see how the booster checks out when it gets back to port, but preliminary reports are that it survived the landing without any major problems.

After a coast phase of about 19 minutes (see the timeline at the bottom) the second stage re-lit and boosted the satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Once travelling at 34,000 km/hour, the Bulgarian communication satellite was cut loose, pushed away by springs, as we watch it going…

…going…

…gone

That’s impressive!

More impressive, they’re going to try to do it again tomorrow. Launch is scheduled for 13:25:14 PDT. If you’re anywhere along the California coast from Ventura County to San Luis Obispo you should be able to see it. Here’s what a previous launch looked like from Camarillo – in fact, I just realized that’s the rocket that was re-launched yesterday from Florida! Of course, the closer you can get to the Lomoc and Vandenberg area, the better the view.

If you can’t get to the Central Coast to see it, you can watch the SpaceX webcast starting at about 13:10 PDT.

The impossible becomes the possible becomes the routine becomes the commonplace. We’re still somewhere between “possible” and “routine,” but we’re moving in the right direction!

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