Help stop space debris: SpaceX tests reusable rocket

Elon Musk's commercial space company launched the Falcon 9 rocket this past weekend. It's the first ever test of a potentially reusable rocket.

This past weekend, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s commercial space company, launched the Falcon 9 rocket (pictured) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The new Falcon 9 v1.1 system has more powerful engines, longer fuel tanks, and revamped control -- its launch is also the first ever test of a potentially reusable rocket.

Lots of capsules and crafts are wasted, frying on a fiery re-entry into our atmosphere. Making rockets reusable will vastly cut down on the waste and help stop the volume of space debris from continuing to rise, according to space-flight researcher Hugh Lewis at the University of Southampton. "There are a lot of upper rocket stages that remain in orbit after launch and we are now having to deal with the debris problem they cause."

The first stage (the bottom part) of Falcon 9 is supposed to refire after separating from the second stage (the upper part). Musk hopes to reuse the first stage, Businessweek reports, and has been working on technology that would let it land safely rather than crashing into the water. But the first attempt didn’t go as planned.

New Scientist reports:

After the satellite-carrying second stage had freed itself, the first stage, which would normally simply burn up and be lost forever, fired three of its nine engines. That braked its supersonic climb, allowing it to re-enter and free fall under control towards the Pacific Ocean.

It was then due to reduce its vertical velocity further as it neared the ocean, to demonstrate the viability of a soft landing from orbit for the stage... But instead, it developed an uncontrollable aerodynamic roll, which caused fuel to slosh around the edges of the tank, depriving the landing burn of fuel. So the stage broke up on impact with the water.

Although this particular reusability test failed, the fact that the test is happening at all is encouraging space-flight observers. Musk thinks SpaceX is on the right track and reusable, less-costly rockets are inevitable.

"Developing reusable spacecraft is key to opening up wider access to space," says space analyst Greg Sadlier with consultancy London Economics. "Reusability would be a game-changer, as it has the potential to revolutionize the economics of space flight."

[Businessweek, New Scientist]

Image: SpaceX

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