Elon Musk’s SpaceX has experienced another example of “rapid unscheduled disassembly” – which is Musk jargon for “my rocket exploded”.
The spaceflight company has been testing a re-usable version of its Falcon 9 rocket, the sub-orbital rocket which it uses, among other things, to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (it started in 2012, making it the first private company to visit the ISS).
Rockets are expensive, with a standard launch on the Falcon 9 costing $61m, but those costs can be reduced if the bottom stage of the rocket, which contains most of the engines, could be re-used.
To that end, SpaceX has been attempting to land the rockets back safely on a stable surface, rather than letting them drop into the ocean as is typical for launches. It has a purpose-built unmanned “drone ship” built for the purpose (named “Just Read the Instructions” in honour of the science fiction author Iain M Banks) and the rockets are armed with small thrusters to control their descent.
Unfortunately, landing a rocket is tricky. Almost exactly a year ago, a Falcon 9 rocket exploded after hitting the ship at a steep angle, causing Musk to coin the phrase “rapid unscheduled disassembly”.
This year’s landing went much better, relatively speaking. The rocket landed vertically, and three of the four legs were successfully locked into place. Unfortunately, the fourth did not. Musk shared a video of the landing and subsequent explosion, adding: “Falcon lands on droneship, but the lockout collet doesn’t latch on one [of] the four legs, causing it to tip over post landing. Root cause may have been ice buildup due to condensation from heavy fog at liftoff.”
Although the company hasn’t managed to land the rocket on the ship, it did successfully land on solid ground in December.
This article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Monday 18th January 2016 09.57 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010