SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship returns to port
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In the early morning hours of Jan. 10, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) attempted a feat that had never been done before — land a first stage rocket booster on a floating barge. The landing was not a success, as the booster slammed into the ship upon impact. Elon Musk’s, SpaceX CEO, preliminary report indicated that the ship itself was fine; however, there was evidence of damage to support equipment. A full picture of the hard landing and what repairs will be needed will most likely not be available for some days as crews work to analyze data and assess the ship.
A SpaceX Falcon v1.1 rocket lifted off on time from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC 40) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:47 a.m. EST (0947 GMT). Approximately nine minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first stage would attempt to make history with the first attempt at landing on a ship. The landing was described as an unsuccessful “hard landing” by SpaceX officials.
According to Spaceflight Now, the ship returned to the Port of Jacksonville with the help of a tug boat on Sunday afternoon Jan. 11.
Officially titled the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS), and more often referred to as “BargeX” by fans, the floating platform is roughly the size of a football field, measuring 300 ft by 100 ft, with wings that extend the width to 170 ft. In pictures, this oceanic landing pad may seem like a large vessel; however, from the rocket’s perspective this experiment is like trying to play darts blindfolded with a target 1,000 miles away. All of the pieces have to fall into place for this to be successful, and this time around they were not.
In a pre-launch press conference on Jan. 5. Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president for mission assurance, said, “Hitting a platform of that size is very difficult. We put the chance of success at maybe 50 percent. When you look at the vessel from the ground, I think it’s probably a very big platform, but when you look at it from space, it looks very, very small.”
During the briefing, Koenigsmann made it very clear that the company’s main goal was to launch the rocket and safely deliver the cargo to the six astronauts aboard the space station. Within the Dragon spacecraft was over 5,200 pounds (2,350 kilograms) of research experiments, hardware, and crew supplies including personal items from family members and even condiments. The crew currently has enough food to last for four to six months, but about a month ago they ran out of condiments. As anyone who has flown in space can tell you, while on orbit your tastes change and you crave spicier foods.
Originally, the company had tried several attempts to land the Falcon first stage under parachute. When that concept proved to be ineffective, they switched their technique to a propulsion landing. The Falcon first stage was significantly lighter as it returned to Earth, having used the majority of fuel during the ascent phase. The Falcon 9 v1.1 booster is equipped with landing legs to help it “stick” its landing. The legs were added to the rocket’s first stage as part of the third commercial resupply mission in Apr. 2014, and have shown to hold up during flight.
Prior to Saturday’s landing attempt, the NewSpace company has made several attempts at oceanic soft landings, with them being successful. Once they have mastered the oceanic pad landing, the company has plans to land on solid ground at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Recently revealed landing plans, shows SpaceX intends to use Space Launch Complex 13 (SLC 13) at Cape Canaveral as the future landing site.
Also new to the CRS-5 flight was the addition of “grid fins” to the Falcon booster. These were added with the intent of enhancing the first stage’s precision style landing capabilities. The grid fins are stowed during ascent and deployed upon reentry to provide “x-wing” style control. Each fin moves independently for pitch, roll, and yaw. The first stage’s entry velocity is too high to a precision landing with nitrogen gas thrusters only, other surfaces (such as fins) are needed for pitch trim.
Shortly after the launch, Musk tweeted a potential problem with the grid fins that could have affected the landing.
Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fluid right before landing.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 10 Janvier 2015
Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month. — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 10 Janvier 2015
SpaceX officials knew that Saturday’s landing attempt would probably not be successful, but with a full launch calendar for 2015, they have plenty of chances to get it right, and hope for a successful landing sometime this year. This experiment is a key step on the road to rocket resuability and aims to lower the cost of getting to space.
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