SpaceX has mounted landing legs on its Falcon 9 rocket ahead of its March launch towards the International Space Station, marking another milestone in the company’s mission to develop a fully reusable rocket.
SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk tweeted a picture of the rocket inside a hangar at Cape Canaveral with the landing gear mounted but said that after the upcoming flight the rocket will only soft-land in the ocean as the company’s engineers have to master precision control during the transition from hypersonic to subsonic travel.
SpaceX, the first private space hardware developer and manufacturer that succeeded to dock at the International Space Station, has embarked on a quest to develop reusable rockets. Such a concept, allowing rockets to be used repeatedly in a similar manner to airplanes and not being discarded after each flight, would considerably decrease the cost of space transportation.
With the exception of SpaceX’s rockets, all launch vehicles used around the world are designed to burn in the atmosphere during the re-entry. Falcon 9, however, is built to withstand the extreme heat and loads during the return to the atmosphere. Eventually, the rockets should be able to return to the launch pad and land in a fully controlled way.
SpaceX tested this concept in October 2013 with its experimental Grasshopper rocket.
“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Elon Musk wrote in a post on SpaceX’s website. “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionise access to space.”
The current price tag on a SpaceX launch is $54m (£32m). The reusable soft landing concept, once fully functional, would decrease the price to as little as $200,000.
Building a rocket costs about the same as building aircraft. However, unlike planes, which perform tens of thousands of flights during their life-time, a rocket is used only once.