05292017

Success for SpaceX ‘re-usable rocket’

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SPACEX

California’s SpaceX company has successfully re-flown a segment from one of its Falcon 9 rockets.

The first-stage booster, which was previously used on a mission 11 months ago, helped send a telecommunications satellite into orbit from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

It marks an important milestone for SpaceX in its quest for re-usability.

Traditionally, rockets are expendable – their various segments are discarded and destroyed during an ascent.

The California outfit, in contrast, aims to recover Falcon first-stages and fly them multiple times to try to reduce the cost of its operations.

And to emphasise this point, Thursday’s booster was also brought back under control to land on a barge stationed out in the Atlantic.

The lift-off had occurred on cue at 18:27 EDT (22:27 GMT; 23:27 BST).

The satellite passenger, SES-10, was ejected some 32 minutes later.

This spacecraft is now being manoeuvred by its own thruster system to a position over the equator from where it can deliver TV and telecom services to the Caribbean, Brazil, and other regions in Central and South America.

SpaceX has become adept in the past two years at bringing first-stage boosters home after they have completed their primary task of getting a payload out of the thicker lower-reaches of the atmosphere.

The segments autonomously guide themselves back to the floating platform or a coastal pad to make propulsive landings.

Thursday’s mission was the first time one of these “flight proven” vehicles had been relaunched.

Others used boosters will now follow.

Some customers may still insist on a brand new rocket, but if SpaceX can demonstrate routine, untroubled performance from these second-hand vehicles then satellite operators will get increasingly comfortable with the concept.

Getting away from expendable rockets has been a long quest.

Famously, Nasa’s space shuttle system was partially re-usable.

Its white solid-fuel strap-on boosters, for example, would parachute into the Atlantic after each launch. The casings of these boosters were then refurbished and re-used numerous times.

And yet the complexities of servicing the shuttle system after every flight swamped any savings.

SpaceX hopes its simpler Falcon 9 rocket can finally deliver a practical commercial solution. It believes its technology will eventually permit rapid turnaround, with boosters flying perhaps 10 times before being retired.

Other players are following close behind. The Amazon entrepreneur Jeff Bezos already has a re-usable sub-orbital rocket and capsule system that he has successfully launched and landed five times.

Mr Bezos now plans a recoverable orbital rocket called New Glenn. And United Launch Alliance, which puts up the majority of America’s national security payloads, is in the process of designing a new vehicle that will return its first-stage engines to Earth via parachute.

This is welcome news for the likes of Luxembourg satellite operator SES, which is having to queue up for rocket rides and wait many months to get its valuable telecoms spacecraft in orbit and earning revenue.

“It’s a big deal for us. If we can get reliable re-usability then we will get better management of the manifest,” said Martin Halliwell, the chief technology officer for SES.

“For us as an operator to have as much choice as possible is really exciting,” he told BBC News.

and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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