Wednesday, 11 September 2013

SpaceX Falcon and Grasshopper

SpaceX continue to stride forward in their commercial spaceflight programme. Having made records three years ago when their Dragon-class spacecraft delivered its package to the International Space Station, SpaceX have continued to make progress with their launch vehicles. Previous flights by SpaceX have been launched using the Falcon family of launch vehicles, which use SpaceX's own designs of rocket engines to great effect. Both the original test flight of the Dragon and its eventual mission to the ISS were launched by the Falcon 9 vehicle (actually the second design built), version 1.0, which is being replaced by the version 1.1. Having already secured commercial cargo contracts from NASA, SpaceX anticipate a human transport sign-off in the near future.

Falcon 1, Falcon 9 v.1.0, Falcon 9 v1.1 and Falcon Heavy
The major problem with the Falcon family is its lack of true reusability. SpaceX aimed to create a reusable rocketship from the very beginning, but only certain stages and components have shown reuse to be viable. Work continues on a fully reusable version of the Falcon, although a successful test is not expected until at least well into next year. Meanwhile, a heavy duty variant, the Falcon Heavy, is in development, provisionally scheduled for launch next year. The Falcon Heavy is intended as a successor to the Saturn V rockets that launched NASA's Apollo missions; an expendable rocket system intended to launch human carriage spacecraft.

Essential in the development of a reusable launch system is the Grasshopper rocket. This is a supllementary system, designed primarily for low to high-to-high altitude, low-to-mid velocity tests that will go towards the development of a reusable variant of the Falcon and its potential successors. In August, SpaceX performed a test flight that demonstrated the Grasshopper's capabilities. As this video shows, it has the capability not only for vertical landing but also lateral maneuverability (it's also good for scaring cows).

After full testing, the Grasshopper's systems could potentially be used to create the next  version of the Falcon. Presumably, the next aim for SpaceX will be the realisation of the Red Dragon project: a modified Dragon spacecraft designed to carry instruments, and eventually, astronauts to and from Mars. The Falcon Heavy would be used to launch the Red Dragon, and some of the technologies used by the Grasshopper could be modified to allow it to maneuvre, land on and relaunch from the Martian surface.

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