The high costs and limited use of rockets are one of the hottest topics worldwide. The problems have led nations and some private companies around the globe to investigate what they can do to address the issues. Elon Musk’s SpaceX seems to have locked on to the right solution by successfully piloting the ‘Reusable Rocket’.
Founded in 2002, SpaceX has the joint goals of reducing transportation costs to space and to make human migration to Mars possible. It is a privately owned company, and the first ever to make a cargo contract with NASA and the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX developed various rockets and spacecrafts to fulfill the goal of being able to transport cargo through the Earth’s orbit. One of the rockets they invented is called the ‘Falcon’. The Falcon series consists of three launch vehicles (Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy). Among these rockets, Falcon 1 was the first privately funded rocket fueled by liquid. However, it experienced a lot of difficulties in its early days. Due to technical issues, the launch of Falcon 1 was postponed several times before its first successful take off in 2006 on Omelek Island in the Marshall Islands. Unfortunately, saltwater corrosion forced Falcon 1 to fall into the ocean after less than a minute in the air. SpaceX experimented with many other launches of the Falcon 1 with many unsuccessful results, before finally reaching the Earth’s orbit in 2008. This was the first privately funded rocket to achieve this type of success. Following Falcon 1’s success, SpaceX decided to move on to a newer model and developed the ‘Falcon 9’. Falcon 9 is the world’s first orbital-class reusable rocket, which was first launched in 2010 and is currently making its way into the history books after further developments.
The space launch vehicle consists of a first-stage lower rocket that launches from the ground and breaks through the atmosphere and a two-three-stage upper rocket that sends the mounted spacecraft or satellite into the target orbit. When the lower rocket reaches a certain altitude, it separates from the upper one and falls to Earth before being recovered. The upper rocket is also designed to fall to the Earth after successfully launching the attached spacecraft or satellite into orbit, but is not recyclable. Instead it enters the atmosphere and burns away. In 2011, SpaceX announced a plan to collect and reuse the first-stage rockets used for rocket injection. Falcon 9 of SpaceX was launched for a long time before they succeeded in recovering the lower rocket in April 2016. Falcon 9 failed its mission in September 2016 after an engine explosion, but launched successfully again in 2017. In June of the same year, a recycled spacecraft was loaded onto Falcon 9 and launched successfully. Recently, Falcon 9 successfully launched and landed its ninth trial, setting a record for rocket recycling.
|▲ Scene of SpaceX launching the Falcon 9 rocket (Photo from Yonhap News)|
SpaceX, and another private space company Blue Origin, are currently developing and researching technology to recover and recycle lower rockets. Blue Origin founded by Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, is planning a space trip for the public and is developing a recyclable rocket called the New Shepard that is geared entirely for tourism purposes. Blue Origin is promoting a quasi-orbit space tour, in which people go up to the boundary of the universe to view the Earth and experience zero-gravity for several minutes before returning home.
|▲ Blue Origin's New Shepard (Photo from News1)|
Many countries around the world are entering into the world of recycling rockets. In Japan, the government announced a space master plan including the recycling of space rockets, showing its strong will to commit to the program. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is conducting recycling research in partnership with agencies from Germany and France. Japan's strategy is to secure related technologies in a short time as recycling rockets will become the main pivot of space development projects in the future.
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) declared that “the first launch vehicle capable of vertical take-off and landing will be developed by 2025,” demonstrating a strong commitment to the development of recycling rocket technology. China is already developing a flight model for a rocket recycling experiment, where they will launch a rocket from their Space Launch Center and recover it from the sea. China is also researching a helicopter air retrieval method developed by a company called Rocket Lab. Rocket Lab's helicopter aerial retrieval method is to recover a parachute-mounted rocket using a helicopter with a special hook.
Russia is currently working on an ‘Amur’ rocket model that also recycles its first-stage rockets. It is similar to Falcon 9 in functional terms as it is equipped with a grid pin at the top of the first stage booster and landing gear at the bottom. Russia plans to retrieve the Amur rocket by launching it and re-landing it at a ground landing site near the Sea of Okhotsk.
The era of launching costly rockets is changing to an era of reducing cost by recycling rockets. Korea is also getting in on the game by conducting basic research on recycling rockets and is preparing to launch ‘Nuri‘, a Korean projectile soon. Should the Nuri launch successfully, Korea will become an independent country for space projectiles of its own and the world's recycling rocket technology would be furthered advanced through their experiences.
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