SpaceX founder Elon Musk has made it no secret that he plans to go to Mars, and it looks like he’s giving NASA’s ambitions about the Red Planet a bit of a boost along the way. During a Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in September, the space agency sent a pair of chase planes up to take high-resolution images of the booster as it made a powered test landing on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean as a way of gather critical engineering information for future Mars missions.
The Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s attempt at a paradigm shift in spaceflight as the company works on a space launch system where all the major components from booster stages to spacecraft are able to return to Earth for a quick refueling and relaunching at a fraction of what current systems cost. Though still in its early stages, the powered landing system is already paying dividends to NASA, who sees the Falcon 9 as a source of data for future Mars missions.
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In September, NASA sent up a pair of chase planes; one from NASA's Scientifically Calibrated In-Flight Imagery (SCIFLI) project team, and one from the US Naval Air Systems Command Weapons Division's Air Test and Evaluation Squadron-30 at Point Mugu, California. The idea was that by studying the Falcon 9 as it re-fired its engines at supersonic velocities, it would be a low cost way for both NASA and SpaceX to gather the needed data for building future spacecraft for making powered landings on Mars.
The planes consisted of a NASA twin-engined WB-47 high-altitude research aircraft, and a Navy NP-3D Orion maritime patrol plane. These were stationed 50 mi (80 km) from the Falcon 9 rocket's flight path, where infrared and high definition cameras focused on the exhaust from the Falcon 9 as it fired and re-fired. The WB-57 carried a full-motion infrared video camera system that is gimbal-mounted on the nose with full-color high definition and infrared video capability, and the NP-3D Orion had a long-range infrared optical system.
Though the Falcon 9 rocket is designed exclusively for launching payloads from Earth, its powered landing capability makes it a serendipitous test bed for studying how to land on Mars, since the problems of making a powered landing in Earth’s atmosphere while traveling at supersonic speeds are very similar to those of landing a spacecraft on Mars.
"Because the technologies required to land large payloads on Mars are significantly different than those used here on Earth, investment in these technologies is critical," says Robert Braun, principal investigator for NASA's Propulsive Descent Technologies project and professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "This is the first high-fidelity data set of a rocket system firing into its direction of travel while traveling at supersonic speeds in Mars-relevant conditions. Analysis of this unique data set will enable system engineers to extract important lessons for the application and infusion of supersonic retro-propulsion into future NASA missions."
The video below shows the Falcon 9 landing test.