SpaceX has released video footage recovered from a camera mounted on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket during a breakthrough attempt to soft-land on water after launching a cargo delivery capsule to the International Space Station in mid-April.
The footage, available from the YouTube channel of the American private space transportation company, appears rather pixelated and unclear. SpaceX has also released raw data capturing the rocket-braking descent of Falcon 9’s first stage before splashing down into the Atlantic, asking the public to help fix the video.
The soft-landing attempt, that took place after the last SpaceX cargo-delivery launch to the ISS in mid-April, represents a major milestone in the company’s efforts to develop a fully reusable rocket that would enable considerable reduction in cost of space transportation.
Unlike commercial aircraft engines which are being used repeatedly for thousands of flights, space launch providers have to purchase a new rocket after every launch.
SpaceX believes that by developing a fully reusable rocket, the price tag for a rocket launch could be reduced from tens of millions to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
SpaceX announced earlier its first attempt to soft-land the first rocket stage after a commercial launch was successful. The first stage separated from the upper stage powering the Dragon capsule and fell back to Earth using residual rocket fuel to keep an upright position. It slowed down through the atmosphere before falling into the ocean still in the vertical position.
Data transmitted from an airplane tracking the booster's descent indicated it splashed down intact. SpaceX is now working on recovering the rocket and bringing it back to land, which could take several months.
However, SpaceX's drive to develop fully reusable launch vehicles is not entirely new in the aerospace industry.
“Economic interest of reutilisation of rocket stages – especially the Space Shuttle - has been disappointing so far,” said Elizabeth Rongier, President of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety and Director of General Inspection and Quality of the French space agency (CNES). “The biggest concern with reusable launch vehicle is the engine, in particular a liquid rocket engine,” she said.
While Nasa’s famous Space Shuttle consisted of parts that were, with the exception of the external tank, largely reusable, refurbishing them between launches proved to be extremely costly.
In the early days of the programme’s development, Nasa estimated each Space Shuttle launch would cost some $54m in 2011 dollars (£32m). However, the real average cost to launch a Space Shuttle as of 2011 soared up to $450m per mission.
In spite of that, Rongier said reusability is still a goal the global aerospace community is aspiring to as it would help reduce the growing amount of space debris in orbit around the Earth – an intensifying problem of today’s space transportation.
“A fully reusable launcher would not let a rocket body in orbit but a non-destructive return from orbit remains beyond the state of the art,” said Rongier, explaining that current SpaceX’s attempts focus on the sub-orbital first stage. “So far the only practicable way to dispose safely of an orbital stage is to perform a destructive controlled re-entry. First stage recovery will not reduce space debris, but will avoid letting several dozens of tons of metal sink to the bottom of the ocean,” she said.
Watch SpaceX's video capturing the landing of Falcon 9's first stage below: