SpaceX successfully launched Bangladesh's first-ever geostationary communications satellite, called Bangabandhu-1, into space on Friday.
But the real star of the mission was a newly designed rocket called Falcon 9 Block 5. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, said the launcher is built to be the most powerful, reusable, and affordable version of his company's workhorse orbital rocket.
What's more, Musk said Falcon 9 Block 5 will usher in a new era of spaceflight records.
"I believe Falcon 9 was the most-launched rocket worldwide in 2017," he said on a call with reporters Thursday afternoon. "If things go well - big caveat - SpaceX will launch more rockets than any other country in 2018."
Musk added that in 2019, SpaceX plans to launch a Falcon 9 mission, land the booster, inspect it, and get it back out to a launchpad in 24 hours or less.
"This is a ridiculously hard thing that has taken us, man, since 2002 - 16 years of extreme effort and many, many iterations, and thousands of small but important design changes to get to where we think this is even possible. Crazy hard," he said.
"And of course we still need to demonstrate it, it's not like we've done it. But it can be done."
Making spaceflight history
SpaceX has now successfully launched 56 missions on a Falcon 9 rocket since its debut in June 2010. In 2018, including Friday's launch, the Falcon 9 has flown eight times.
"By this time last year, we'd only done five orbital-class missions," Musk said on Thursday.
"We're on track to be at double our launch rate for last year, which was a record launch rate for us."
Unlike other rockets, Falcon 9's design hasn't remained locked in place. Engineers have steadily improved the launcher over the years, making it taller, stronger, lighter, and more powerful.
Easily the most important change was the addition of avionics, grid fins, and landing legs that allow the 16-story booster - which makes up about 60-70 percent of marginal launch costs, according to Musk - to launch, land, and be reused.
So far, SpaceX has landed 25 boosters - 11 on land and 14 on a ship at sea. Only 11 have re-flown, and the most a single Falcon 9 booster has been reused is twice.
But Musk described Falcon 9 Block 5 as "the most reliable rocket ever built" and said he hopes to expand that reuse record to 10 launches for each new booster with only quick inspections in between.
With minor servicing and refurbishments, he said, it could perhaps get reused 100 or more times.
"We intend to demonstrate two orbital launches of the same flight vehicle within 24 hours no later than next year," Musk said - a spaceflight first he described as "truly remarkable."
"There's really only so much work you can even do in one day, and a bunch of it consists of transporting the rocket from its landing site back to its launch site, mounting a new satellite on the rocket, loading propellant, and going - and doing all of that within a 24-hour period while maintaining a very high level of mission assurance," he said.
"That is extraordinarily difficult. That would be a very exciting outcome."
How Falcon 9 Block 5 can be reused so quickly
The ability to rapidly reuse an orbital rocket booster did not happen overnight.
Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer, have said hundreds of incremental design changes to Falcon 9 will make it possible, including:
- The rocket's Merlin 1D engines have been upgraded to produce about 7-10 percent more thrust, allowing the booster to reserve more fuel for a successful landing.
- Avionics and flight computers were also upgraded and made lighter, improving rocket-burn efficiency, precision, and success rates for booster landings.
- The aluminium structure that holds the engines, called the "octaweb," has been strengthened and made easier to inspect and refurbish for rapid landing-to-launch turnaround.
- SpaceX replaced some paint on the rocket with a "felt" of black, custom-made thermal protection material. This should help boosters repeatedly survive the searing temperatures of atmospheric reentry as they careen back to Earth at thousands of miles per hour.
- Landing legs on the boosters were redesigned to be retractable, saving many hours of time previously required to detach and reattach them during transportation.
Combined with other tricks still being developed to reuse more parts of the rocket - primarily the fairing (the nosecone of the rocket) and the upper stage - Musk noted these changes could lower marginal launch costs to under $US5-6 million.
"We expect this to be the mainstay for SpaceX business," Musk said. "We think we'll probably wind up with something on the order of 300 flights, maybe more, of Falcon 9 Block 5 before retirement."
Why Falcon 9 Block 5 could be the last of its kind
The reason Musk has called Falcon 9 Block 5 the "final version" of the rocket is that SpaceX's 6,000 employees are shifting nearly all of their engineering efforts to focus on the company's Big Falcon Rocket.
The two-stage BFR system is expected to be taller than the Statue of Liberty, deliver a 16-story spaceship into orbit, be fully reusable, and ferry 100 people and 150 tons of cargo to Mars.
If all goes well, BFR will ultimately replace all other SpaceX rockets, as it will be cheaper (by mass) to launch and reuse than any version of Falcon 9, including Block 5.
SpaceX recently got a permit to begin constructing the first BFR spaceships in the Port of Los Angeles, about a dozen miles south of the company's headquarters.
Musk hopes to begin test-launching the first BFR spaceships at SpaceX's Texas facilities early next year.
Musk's ultimate goal is create a "backup drive" for humanity by permanently colonizing Mars within 100 years of the first BFR mission.
"I'm not predicting that we're about to enter a Dark Ages, but that there's some probability that we will, particularly if there's a third world war," Musk said in March.
"Then we want to make sure that there's enough of us, a seed of human civilisation, somewhere else to bring civilisation back and perhaps shorten the length of the Dark Ages."
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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