SpaceX’s first stage teaches them how to land on Mars


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The competition heats up: This update on the status of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule also provides this interesting detail about the engineering knowledge gained from the company’s effort to vertically land its Falcon 9 first stages:

The company is also using the propulsive landings as a way to practically and physically test landing systems in a near-Mars atmospheric environment. “Earth’s upper atmosphere is also a really good analogue for Mars’ atmosphere,” noted [Garrett Reisman, Director of Space Operations]. “When you get up high enough, the density and consistency of the atmosphere is very similar to what you face during Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) on Mars. So every time we land, we take one of these rockets and we perform hypersonic retrograde propulsion, the data from which we’re sharing with JPL because it’s the first time this has ever been demonstrated on a major scale.”

To this end, Reisman pointed out that the Falcon 9 first stage landings are really serving as test beds for the EDL systems of eventual Mars missions. “Every time you see one of those rockets coming back, not only is it enabling a whole new paradigm for launching things into space, but it’s also bringing us one step closer to Mars.

As for Dragon, it now appears the company wants to do a full unmanned demo flight to and from ISS before it performs its launch abort test. They will then follow this with a manned demo mission to ISS. All three flights are planned for 2017.

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5 comments

  • PeterF

    Awesome! Flash Gordon in the 21st century! Now they just need an excuse to add cool looking fins…

  • Edward

    “So every time we land, we take one of these rockets and we perform hypersonic retrograde propulsion, the data from which we’re sharing with JPL because it’s the first time this has ever been demonstrated on a major scale. To this end, Reisman pointed out that the Falcon 9 first stage landings are really serving as test beds for the EDL systems of eventual Mars missions.”

    When SpaceX first started the ocean landings (no barge, just trying to get it vertical as it reached the water), NASA was very interested in the tests and monitored them with SpaceX approval. SpaceX got something out of it, too, I don’t quite remember, but perhaps data that NASA collected. I don’t remember them mentioning at the time that NASA was intending to use the information gathered for Martian EDL of heavy payloads.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Edward: Yeah, the Mars EDL angle was there from the get-go. NASA used a couple different aircraft equipped with radar-guided tracking cameras to get imagery of the retropropulsion burns on almost all the SpaceX 1st stage return experiments. As with the upcoming Red Dragon mission in (one hopes) 2018, NASA and SpaceX swap all the data each gathers.

    ZimmerBob: The plan to run the unmanned Dragon 2 mission to ISS preceding the in-flight abort test was announced shortly after the pad abort test last year, IIRC. The idea is that the Dragon 2 that’s going to be used for that 1st unmanned ISS rendezvous is going to be pretty much identical to the unit that actually delivers crew to ISS a few months later. SpaceX intends to fish that first ISS-visiting Dragon 2 out of the drink, clean it up and use it for the in-flight abort test. The reason SpaceX gave at the time for wanting to do things this way was that the Dragon 2 that makes the first unmanned ISS visit will incorporate all the operational subsystems and engineering changes of the initially operational manned version. Re-using it for an in-flight abort test will both demonstrate Dragon 2 reusability and provide maximum fidelity so far as how a real ascent emergency would play out compared to using the same earlier-stage-of-development vehicle from the pad abort test. Sounded reasonable to me at the time and still does.

  • Space X: officially the coolest place to work on the planet.

  • Ah yes, now that you note it I remember this plan from last year. Thank you.

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