Two months ago, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX made a significant leap forward in reducing the cost of reaching low Earth orbit by reusing an orbital rocket booster that successfully touched down on a drone barge after ferrying its space capsule past the Earth’s atmosphere. On Thursday, Musk’s firm hopes to further reduce the cost of transporting goods or people into space by reusing the only other portion of their rockets that returns to earth, the Dragon space capsule.
The cost of sending something into space has long been estimated using the adage “$10,000 per pound,” though that round figure isn’t always accurate. The immense cost of designing and fielding a new rocket and capsule, as well as all the research and support required to do so, had made passing through the barrier into the celestial beyond impossible for all but a few national governments until just recently. Now, with a number of private ventures eager to seek profits among the stars, the cost of doing business in orbit could continue to drop thanks to companies like SpaceX seeking ways to reuse as much of their equipment as possible.
The upper stage of the rocket, as well as its fairing both remain in orbit after being separated during flight, leaving only the booster stage and the dragon capsule itself to return to earth. SpaceX has designed its boosters to land vertically, as seen in several highly publicized landings and landing attempts. Earlier this year, they successfully launched a Dragon capsule into orbit using a booster stage that had already conducted one launch, but they have yet to reuse one of the capsules themselves. That is, until this week.
In a launch window that opens on Thursday at 5:55pm ET, SpaceX will attempt to launch a rocket housing a Dragon capsule that has already made the trip into orbit once before, on a 2014 mission to resupply the ISS. If successful, SpaceX will have accomplished making two-thirds of its rocket reusable, which could mean a significant reduction in overall cost per launch.
Once it reaches orbit, the reused capsule will continue on to the International Space Station, where it will deliver supplies and equipment, including a high-dollar new NASA experiment intended to study neutron stars and pulsars.
The Dragon Capsule set to be reused can be retrofitted into three variations on the ground, allowing for maximum use of its internal space (approximately 400 cubic feet). The crew and cargo variants are extremely similar, allowing for rapid transition between missions intended to ferry crew members or supplies into orbit. When set up to carry crew, the Dragon can accommodate up to seven passengers. The third variant, called Dragon Lab, requires more time to equip, but is capable of conducting orbital experiments or in-space technology demonstrations without a crew aboard.
SpaceX is slated to begin launching manned missions into orbit using their Dragon capsule as soon as 2018, which is also when NASA is slated to begin testing its own new personnel carrying capsule, the Orion, aboard the Space Launch System (SLS), which is the most powerful rocket NASA has ever fielded.
Images courtesy of SpaceX