Space

SpaceX to attempt Falcon 9 platform landing on Friday

SpaceX to attempt Falcon 9 pla...
An autonomous spaceport drone ship will act as the landing target for the Falcon 7
An autonomous spaceport drone ship will act as the landing target for the Falcon 7
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An autonomous spaceport drone ship will act as the landing target for the Falcon 7
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An autonomous spaceport drone ship will act as the landing target for the Falcon 7
The Falcon 7 will be equipped with hypersonic grid vanes
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The Falcon 7 will be equipped with hypersonic grid vanes
Video still of a previous Falcon 9 sea landing
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Video still of a previous Falcon 9 sea landing
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On Friday, the Dragon CRS-5 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. If the launch is successful, the unmanned Dragon spacecraft will carry supplies and experiments to the ISS, but that part is almost routine. What is unusual is that SpaceX has confirmed that it will not only attempt a powered landing of the Falcon 9 booster, but will do so as a precision landing on a robotic sea barge.

SpaceX says that the attempt has only a 50 percent chance of success, yet marks a major advance in the company's program to create a fully reusable launch system. The barge, called an "autonomous spaceport drone ship," is a custom-built platform measuring 300 by 100 ft (91 by 30 m) with wings extending the width to 170 ft (52 m). Because the platform will be stationed far enough out in the Atlantic to avoid danger, it will not be anchored, but will rely on computerized thrusters similar to those used for station keeping by ocean-going oil drilling ships.

As it re-enters the atmosphere, the Falcon 9 will execute a series of engine burns, beginning with a "boostback" burn to set it on course for the landing site. This will be followed by a supersonic retro propulsion burn to help slow it, then a final burn to slow it to 2 m/s (6.5 ft/s) as the landing legs deploy for (hopefully) a soft touchdown on the barge.

The Falcon 7 will be equipped with hypersonic grid vanes
The Falcon 7 will be equipped with hypersonic grid vanes

SpaceX has already made two ocean soft landings on previous Dragon launches, as well as many land-based test flights, but Friday's test will involve a much greater risk and degree of accuracy than before. Where the last two attempts were made with an accuracy of 10 km (6 mi), the next one will require landing with 10 m (33 ft). This is particularly important because the landing undercarriage of the rocket spans 70 ft (21 m), which doesn't leave much margin for error on the barge's limited deck space.

To aid in making the landing, SpaceX has equipped the Falcon 9 with a set of four independent hypersonic grid fins set in an X-wing configuration to help slow its descent from hypersonic speeds and to control its roll, pitch, and yaw along with the thrust from the gimbaled liquid-fueled engines.

As it descends, the 14-story rocket will be moving at 1,300 m/s (about 1 mi/s), slowing to 250 m/s (820 ft/s). SpaceX says that controlling the spacecraft under these conditions will be "like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a wind storm."

SpaceX says that though the odds of success for Friday's landing are not good, it will still collect valuable information whatever the outcome.

The video below shows a land-based test of SpaceX's landing system.

Source: SpaceX

F9R 1000m Fin Flight | Onboard Cam and Wide Shot

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5 comments
MattII
We can but hope that they manage it.
yawood
That land-based landing in the video is incredible. Even if they manage to land on the barge you'd imagine that any sort of pitching or rolling would cause it to topple, given its height. Surely it would be easier to just fly it to a land-base to land instead of attempting to go to a barge.
Odin Thorleifsson
yawood When trying to control land a volatile falling bomb its wise to take precautionary baby steps. Yes, in the long run the plan is to land back at base. But first they have to prove to them self and everybody else the technology is reliable and safe. At that point they will hopefully get an approval from the state to land on dryland. Spacex can't take any risk.
Lbrewer42
Yankee ingenuity at its finest! See what happens when you don't have government bureaucrats muddling up the system? I am so glad to see a private entity making great advances when NASA has been so restricted by the current anti-America prosperity/advancement in DC. obama kills our Space Shuttle program leaving us with nada, and Space X starts to fill the gap by stepping up to the plate. Keep up the good work!
Mike Nicewarner
Actually, the idea isn't to have the rocket every try to fly directly back to the coast to land. Using the barge in the ocean has a number of advantages and few disadvantages. Fuel savings is huge, because it would have to carry a lot of extra fuel to fly all the way back to Florida. Safety concerns are also mitigated since if something goes wrong during reentry it is over the ocean. The barge carries the extra fuel, so the F9 just refuels there and hops back to the coast. On the down side, if there is a storm or heavy waves, the rocket could be lost. But, they were losing every one of them they launched before, so it isn't too bad. And over time the barge could be upgraded to have the deck ride more independently of the floating portion to keep it more stable in rough seas.