On Thursday, almost a year after SpaceX first landed one of its rocket boosters on a floating platform, the Hawthorne company plans to launch a commercial communications satellite using that same booster.
The use of a recycled rocket will represent a milestone for the young private space industry, potentially ushering in an era of cheap space flight.
Reusability is key to SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk’s larger plans to colonize Mars, as well as to increase the company’s launch cadence. But to make it work, analysts say, the inspection and refurbishment process will need to speed up and prove it is cost-effective.
SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to require little to no refurbishment of the first-stage rocket boosters between flights, resulting in turnover times close to those of aircraft.
“The basis of the business plan for reusable technology is that you’ll be able to lower the cost of each launch by a considerable factor if you’re able to save from having to build yet another first stage,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at the Teal Group.
“That gives you [a] tremendous cost advantage over your competition,” he said. “And already, SpaceX has a significant cost advantage over its competition.”
A launch on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets costs at least $62 million, according to the company’s website, making it about 40% cheaper than the $109 million price of an Atlas V rocket quoted on the website of rival United Launch Alliance.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has said reusable rockets could eventually cut launch prices by an additional 30%.
SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell would not disclose how much the Luxembourg satellite operator paid for Thursday’s flight on a previously flown booster, only saying the company received a discount.
The booster has its original engines, airframe and fuel tanks. SpaceX has released few details of the refurbishment process, other than to say the first stages go through a thorough evaluation process, with careful inspection of the entire booster and individual engine tests.
The landed boosters travel by ground transport to Florida for refurbishment, then to McGregor, Texas, for testing and then on to the launch site.
Analysts said company engineers probably completed multiple ground firings of the engines and also completed a type of ultrasound or non-intrusive evaluation to make sure there were no problems underneath the rocket’s “skin.”
That’s similar to the inspections that engineers did with the space shuttle, which in the 1980s was the first reusable space system. The shuttle orbiter, its three main engines and the two solid rocket boosters that helped propel the craft for the first two minutes of flight were all able to be refurbished and reused multiple times.
The recycling of the main shuttle engines, in particular, was seen as an “absolute engineering marvel” at the time, said Richard Wirz, director of UCLA’s plasma and space propulsion laboratory.
“The space shuttle has shown you can bring these engines back and fire them again,” he said.
The shuttle’s boosters jettisoned away from the orbiter two minutes after launch and landed using parachutes in the Atlantic Ocean. Recovery ships then towed the boosters to port. The motors, structural components and parachutes were inspected and refurbished.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage, on the other hand, touches down using four carbon-fiber legs on land or a ocean-bound droneship after separating from a second-stage rocket.
That means SpaceX won’t have to worry about corrosion from saltwater, said David Barnhart, director of the space engineering research center at USC. But there could be additional checks to make sure dust and debris from the rocket’s upright landing haven’t damaged the first stage, he said.
By reusing a first-stage rocket, SpaceX eliminates the possibility of what’s called “infant failure,” or the chance that a technology or device won’t work the first time.
“You’ve actually flown that device so you know that device should work,” Wirz said. “But that’s only one part of the launch vehicle.”stee
SpaceX initially tested its reusable technology on its Grasshopper test vehicle — basically a Falcon 9 first-stage booster with one engine and attached steel legs.
Since then, fellow private space company Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard rocket booster five times into suborbital space, then landed and relaunched it. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, plans to use its New Shepard booster and crew capsule to ferry tourists into space.
Ultimately, SpaceX will need to decide how many times its first-stage boosters can be reused while still maintaining a high level of reliability, analysts said. In talking about his plans to colonize Mars, Musk mused that that spaceship might be used 12 to 15 times.
SpaceX is targeting an eventual turnaround time of weeks or even days for the Falcon 9. The company has continually tweaked the rocket’s design since it first launched in 2010. The current version of the Falcon 9 was developed and built with reusability in mind and has more performance capabilities than previous models.
SpaceX plans to fly its final upgrade of the Falcon 9 rocket, known as Block 5, later this year. Musk said in a tweet this year that this version will “significantly” improve performance and “ease of reusability.”
About two months ago, SpaceX tweeted that it had successfully completed a static fire test of the reused first stage at its McGregor, Texas, development facility. On Monday, the company test-fired the entire rocket, including the recycled first stage, as part of the same pre-launch preparation it takes with all its rockets.
“We’ve worked closely with SpaceX to understand the capability of the booster and the reliability of the booster, so we’re ready to go,” said Halliwell of SES.
If Thursday’s launch is a success and SpaceX is able to repeat the feat over and over again, the company could turn up the pressure on rivals, Caceres of the Teal Group said.
“If SpaceX proves that they can develop these new technologies … and maintain reliability, then, over time, they’re just going to dominate the market if the competition doesn’t keep up or try to move ahead at some point,” he said.
The launch is set for 3:27 p.m. Pacific time from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 11,600-pound SES-10 satellite will replace two existing satellites and will provide broadband and high-definition video capabilities throughout Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
The satellite will be deployed about 30 minutes after launch and will head to a high geostationary orbit. After the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket separate, SpaceX will then attempt to land the first-stage booster on a droneship.