Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
SpaceX is making an adjustment to its Falcon 9 rocket in hopes of one day being able to reuse it for future missions.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted a picture on Sunday of the company mounting landing legs to its Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for a mission in March.
The rocket uses nine Merlin engines and aluminum-lithium alloy tanks containing liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene propellant to launch its prized Dragon capsule towards the International Space Station. SpaceX says Falcon 9 produces a thrust greater than five 747s at full power, which actually increases with altitude. The rocket generates 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level, but later exudes 1.5 million pounds in the vacuum of space.
When the Falcon 9 finishes taking the Dragon capsule to orbit, it falls back to Earth for a crash landing in the Pacific Ocean, where it is ultimately destroyed. Previously, the company attempted to restart the engine in order to slow this landing and salvage the rocket. However, since this method was proven unfruitful, SpaceX is now hoping the added legs might soften the hard oceanic landing.
SpaceX said the four legs are made of state-of-the-art carbon fiber with aluminum honeycomb. The legs are being installed symmetrically around the base of the rocket, and are stowed along the side of the vehicle during liftoff and later extend outward and down for landing.
If all goes well, the landing legs could eventually guide the Falcon 9 back down towards Earth in order to preserve the expensive piece of equipment for future missions.
“However, F9 will continue to land in the ocean until we prove precision control from hypersonic thru subsonic regimes,” Musk wrote on its Twitter account.
SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin told Reuters that the odds of success at a soft landing for the rocket are less than 40 percent.
“Given all the things that would have to go right, the probability of recovering the first stage is low,” she noted. “It probably won’t work, but we are getting closer.”
SpaceX will be testing the new legs on March 16 when it sends the Dragon on its third of 12 resupply missions to the orbiting space station. The company has a $1.6 billion contract to bring up supplies to its astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory.