Ever since the retirement of the space shuttle program, the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center lay quiet. Every now and then a resupply or a satellite mission occurs, but for the most part, silence dominates the spaceport. However, that’s changed. The spaceport is once again roaring with engines thanks to SpaceX. But what’s so special about SpaceX? How is it any different from NASA and other launch companies like Orbital ATK and United Launch Alliance (ULA)?
SpaceX’s goal is to make space travel sustainable and create technology that will enable humans to go to mars. Unlike other space companies, SpaceX makes reusable rockets, which make launching cheaper. To achieve its goals to go to mars, SpaceX is currently developing the BFR which stands for Big (Censor) Rocket or the family-friendly version, Big Falcon Rocket.
The falcon nine rockets are designed to be launched into space multiple times. Each rocket only needs to be refurbished after a launch. This drives down costs for customers which gives companies greater opportunities to launch their devices into space. Every launch costs around 60 million dollars and 100 million for a government customer (SpaceX usually must file more paperwork for government contracts which adds to the cost). SpaceX offers launches 40 to 60 percent lower than its competitors.
Aside from being reusable, Falcon Nine is very versatile. In the past year, Falcon Nine has launched everything from the ISS resupply craft capsule, Dragon, to NASA’s satellites like the recent GRACE-FO. SpaceX can practically launch any type of mission that fits in its fairing (the shell the wraps around the payload). For heavier payloads, SpaceX developed the Falcon Heavy (FH), which had its maiden launch this year. Instead of one rocket, FH is composed of three Falcon Nine Rockets. All three can land back on Earth.
Preparation for the Launch
Prior to the launch, SpaceX mounts the payload (the cargo) on to the top of the rocket. This work is very painstaking as the process is done very slowly. In addition, SpaceX must keep in mind of the launch window: the time in which they can launch. If they might have to reschedule the launch. After mounting the payload, the falcon nine rocket is put on its side and hauled on a massive vehicle to the launch pad. This process also takes very long as the vehicle can only drive at two miles per hour. At the launch site, the falcon nine rocket is mounted on an arm and is raised. The rocket is now primed for launch.
Depending on the rocket, SpaceX might do a static fire testing of the rocket. Engineers and technicians take data of the engines’ performance, making sure they are performing nominally.
To watch SpaceX’s live stream, search “SpaceX” on YouTube. The host of the live stream usually describes the mission details and any additional minor details. You’ll notice that the Falcon Nine has vapor coming off it. This is because the fuel is supercooled to make it compact and less volatile. Falcon Nine is also painted white to reflect the heat coming from the sunlight. This ensures that the rocket stays relatively cool. Some areas, you’ll notice, are black. These sections do not house fuel, so those sections retain their original black color.
Right before the launch, you’ll hear the following words:
FALCON NINE IS ON INTERNAL POWER
This means that the rocket is operating from its own power. Before this point, all power is coming from the arm.
Fuel is no longer flowing in.
FALCON NINE IS IN STARTUP
The rocket is starting up and preparing all necessary checks of its internal systems. This
Is a safety feature.
It’s also important to note that the engine is chilled to match the temperature of the fuel during this time. This makes creating thrust more efficient.
WATER SUPPRESSION SYSTEM IS ARMED (Important, but not stated).
Water starts spilling down into launch pad. It isn’t used for extinguishing fires rather its used to suppress sound coming from the rocket. This minimizes the damage from the sound of the engines.
The Falcon Nine ignites its nine Merlin engines.
Falcon Nine launches. The arm is also released which frees the Falcon Nine.
FALCON NINE FIRST STAGE NOMINAL
This means everything is ok.
Also known as the period of maximum dynamic pressure, this is when Falcon Nine experiences the most amount of pressure exerted by the atmosphere. The engines are throttled down to produce less thrust to ensure less stress on the vehicle. After this period, the vehicle’s engines throttle back up.
After the second stage jettisons from the first stage, the first stage orients itself towards the Earth and begins its journey back home. Depending on the mission, Falcon Nine may land on the drone ship I’ll Always Love You in the Atlantic, or land at Cape Canaveral Space Port. Not all falcon missions land their first stage, however. If the first stage is too high in altitude or cannot land, the first stage burns up in the atmosphere.
Landing for SpaceX hasn’t always been easy. The rocket is constantly losing fuel making it lighter as it descends. There are also external forces like wind and gravitational forces that act on the vehicle. To control this, Falcon Nine has grid fins which control the flow of air. They’re rectangular with hollow areas.
Landing struts (legs) also deploy when it is approaching the drone ship.
After the second stage jettisons from the first stage, listen for things like SECO (Second Stage Cut Off). The second stage burn is usually long in duration because the satellite needs to obtain a higher orbit or speed. Sometimes, this may require two burns to control the orientation of the rocket. After the satellite has achieved its desired speed and height, the second stage jettisons its payload. The satellite deploys, and the second stage is left to burn in the atmosphere.
Everything That Could Go Wrong
This article describes an ideal situation. In the past, there have been some incidents that have led to some deviations from what was planned.
- Falcon Nine blows up on the launch pad.
- This has happened, although not on launch day. When SpaceX was fueling its rocket, one of the sensors failed, which caused the Falcon Nine to blow up. Everything, including the payload, was destroyed. The company who created the payload demanded a free launch, and they got one.
- The second stage burn takes longer than usual. Space is unpredictable because although it is a vacuum, it’s not a pure vacuum. During one mission, SpaceX had to extend the burn time by around 20 minutes.
- Falcon nine doesn’t land on the drone ship.
- Falcon nine crashes on a surface or the ocean.
Fairings are shells that encapsulate the payload. SpaceX has begun an ambitious project to capture the fairings once they jettison from the second stage. Fairings contain sensors and materials that cost thousands of dollars. As they fall back to Earth, parachutes deploy to slow down their assent. The hope is SpaceX can reuse them for future missions. Currently, no fairings have been captured.
The Future for Falcon Nine
Until SpaceX decides to develop a new rocket, the Falcon Nine block 5 will continue to be used. Although not proven, SpaceX claims that Falcon Nine block 5 can be reused 10 times without refurbishment. This would save SpaceX thousands if not millions of dollars per launch. As Falcon Nine block 5 continues to launch for commercial customers, SpaceX is currently developing its crew Dragon spacecraft in hopes of bringing people to space. Hopefully, SpaceX will make space travel affordable to all enjoy.