SpaceX and its carrier rocket Falcon 9 have recently made much buzz in the media. What caused such an interest? What does this company actually work on? Today we will tell you everything you need to known about SpaceX.
It is the world’s first privately owned company which started the development of launch vehicles for space passenger transportation. Elon Musk (CEO) founded the company in 2002. The main goals of the company are to reduce the costs of space flights and the development of space technologies for the future colonization of Mars.
NASA signed a contract with SpaceX in 2015, according to which the company will deliver astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) with their “Dragon” spaceship. Previously NASA had a similar contract with Boeing. Using the CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Dragon spaceships, the delivery will be cheaper than what Roscosmos charges. At this moment, Soyuz TMA-01M (which is developed and produced by a Russian corporation “Energia”) delivers people to the ISS.
In just fourteen years SpaceX achieved incredible success. The company developed the first private carrier rocket Falcon 1 with liquid engines which brought a payload into the orbit. SpaceX created the spacecraft “Dragon” which was successfully launched, put into orbit and returned to the Earth — the world’s only cargo spaceship which is able to return to the Earth after the flight and in May 2012 it became the first private spacecraft which docked to the ISS. The launch of the first commercial satellite SES-8 to the geostationary transfer orbit in December 2013 is also one of the achievements of SpaceX.
Another SpaceX’s success is Falcon 9, which can be considered as the beginning of a new space age. The company struggled to land the first stage of Falcon 9 for quite some time but finally coped with its task. It was returned to Earth after the orbital launch on 22 December 2015. Such a landing was performed for the first time in history.
Reusable launch vehicles are very important for the development of space as they will allow to reduce the costs of sending goods and people in ten or even one hundred times, which will make the space more accessible. Elon Musk’s words, that building a Falcon 9 is worth 60 million dollars and the fueling of the rocket are just 200 thousand dollars, prove that.
Success of “Blue Origin”, another private company, whose founder is Jeff Bezons (owner of Amazon.com) is worth mentioning. The company was able to launch its spacecraft “New Shepard” and get it back to Earth on 24 November 2015. Two month later this spacecraft took off once again and landed back on Earth. People start comparing the success of Blue Origin and SpaceX after reading the news.
Is It Correct to Compare Falcon 9 to New Shepard?
It is incorrect to compare these launch vehicles! Why? First of all, they have different objectives. Let’s look at them in a detail. Falcon 9 is designed to launch satellites and delivery goods, for example to the ISS, and go back to Earth. In contrast, New Shepard’s task is completely different: it will bring tourists to an altitude of one hundred kilometers, where it will remain for four minutes and afterwards will return to Earth. In other words it will not flight high and far. Remarkably, the rocket will land in parts: the tourist capsule apart from the launch vehicle.
Secondly, because the rockets have different tasks, their structure is also different. That is why the rockets have different forms and this has its consequences during the landing. Falcon 9 is much taller and heavier than New Shepard and its elongated shape allows to easier overcome the resistance of the atmosphere. But this form has its drawbacks: when returning to Earth such shape complicates the landing task. New Shepard, on the contrary, has a different design: it is shorter and lighter, it is also wider and more “dense”. It is much easier to land with this construction but it is still a very difficult task.
The third and the most important argument is that the first stage of Falcon 9 does not go into the orbit and, while separated along the way, it simply falls on Earth. Given that the first stage of Falcon 9 is much higher and heavier than the New Shepard’s stage and that it rises to twice the altitude of the latter (to 200 km), it then falls with the speed twice as of the New Shepard’s. The falling speed of Falcon 9 is 5.5–7 Machs while the New Shepard has no more than three Marchs (1 Mach of Earth is approximately equal to 1224 km/h and at an altitude of 11 km — 1062 km/h). It is worth noting that the stage of Blue Origin virtually retains in a vertical position for the entire flight while the stage of SpaceX has to perform a complicated maneuver before the landing since the end point is located almost horizontally to the Earth.
Also, during the suborbital flights New Shepard does not reach the escape velocity and that is an another reason why the comparison of these two spacecrafts is not entirely correct: as a suborbital flight is to an orbital as a camping trip outside the city to a flight to a different continent. However, such space “races” are very useful as they only accelerate the exploration of space.
Another SpaceX development is Falcon Heavy — a launch vehicle which, in contrast to the Falcon 9, will have an extra pair of rocket boosters designed on the base of the first stage of Falcon 9 v1.2. With the help of these boosters the carrier rocket will be able to deliver up to 53 tons into the low Earth orbit, up to 21.2 tons to geostationary transfer orbit and up to 13.2 tons to Mars!
Falcon Heavy could be useful for the Mars study or for the moons of Jupiter. It is planned that the first launch of Falcon Heavy will take place in the spring of this year.
Since its establishment in 2002, SpaceX has developed a family of four rocket engines: Merlin and Kestrel for Falcon, Draco to maneuver the Dragon spacecraft and the second stage of Falcon 9 v1.0, SuperDraco for the emergency rescue system and a controlled landing of the Dragon V2. Currently, another engine is in development — Raptor, which will be used for missions to Mars. In 2014 the company achieved a ban on the usage of the Russian rocket engines by the US Air Force.
SpaceX is also building its own private spaceport! It gained a confirmation from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that a private spaceport will not bring any harm to the ecology of the region and received in July the final construction permission. Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will be launched from this spaceport. It will also be used for “various reusable suborbital launch vehicles”. Elon Musk plans to launch a spacecraft to Mars from this spaceport.
All the successes of private space exploration companies are beneficial to the study of space. Private companies are suddenly starting to quickly set the pace of the space industry. The American company United Launch Alliance, the Japanese Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the European Arianespace and the Russian Roscosmos are forced to cut their launching prices under the pressure of SpaceX. Almost half of the contracts on the world market of commercial satellite launches in 2014 got Elon Musk’s SpaceX and even displaced Roscosmos. Only Arianespace could keep the competition.
In the near future the prices for the Near-Earth tourism will decrease thanks to reusable launch vehicles and Musk along with other entrepreneurs will pave the way into the deep space and the exploration of Mars’s, Moon’s and asteroid resources will begin. This is how we will enter a second golden age of space, which was started by independent and not controlled by the government agencies enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. And we are left with the possibility to keep an eye on the progress in the space exploration.
Why entrepreneurs are interested in space? Why are they investing money in it? What people are going to do in the cold and lifeless space? These and other questions will be discussed in our next article about space colonization.