Science & Health

Just How Dirty Does A Rocket Get Launching To Space Then Returning To Earth?

Just How Dirty Does a Rocket Get Launching to Space then Returning to Earth?

This. This is how dirty. Coolest part? Check out those huge clean swaths where the landing legs protected the rocket’s paint job from soot, dust, and singeing. We never thought we’d feel tingly about a grungy old rocket, but this one is doing the trick.

This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a constellation of Orbcomm communications satellites into orbit on 21 December 2015. More impressively, the rocket’s first stage returned to Earth in a controlled landing, touching down ten minutes after launch at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Now we can bask in the rocket in all its grungy glory with sooty grey cut by the bright white of where landing gear added a protective covering. Awesome.

The rocket was carefully transported to a hanger near launch complex 39A. Now the 47.5m tall, 3.6m diameter rocket is being inspected. In the coming days, the rocket will be put through its paces to learn what happened to it during its flight. This includes strapping the rocket to the launch pad and firing the engines up to full throttle. This tie-down test will confirm that all systems are good, and that at least in theory the rocket could launch again.

This fast turn-around time is part of the proof-of-concept of affordable spaceflight through reusable rockets. SpaceX is reliably launching playloads, and now has proved it can land their rockets. Next up for reusability is quickly and cheaply getting the rockets ready for the next launch.

Once testing is complete, Elon Musk plans to treat the Falcon 9 as a historical artifact, keeping it Earthbound as a tribute to SpaceX’s accomplishment. He’s yet to give concrete plans, or even if the rocket will be on public display.

Until those plans are solid, there’s always a chance, however slim, that modern-day Mad Scientist Musk will see the test results, grin manically, up the stakes, and roll the dice a second time with another launch. If he decides not to chance this particular rocket’s reusability, we’ll see an attempt with another rocket soon. SpaceX has over a dozen launches scheduled for 2016, so we’re optimistic that at least one of them will be with a rocket ready to blast off for a second time.

We just hope they don’t wash it. The patina of a rocket slightly used may just be our favourite style for the coming year.

Top image: Falcon 9 rocket in the hanger after a successful launch and controlled landing. Credit: SpaceX


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