SpaceX on Friday kicked off the first of two rocket launches this weekend with a smashing success.
The aerospace company, founded by tech mogul Elon Musk, fired off a Falcon 9 rocket around 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23. Minutes later, it delivered Bulgaria’s first telecommunications satellite into orbit about 22,200 miles above Earth.
But part of the rocket did something extra-special right after launch: Its first-stage booster — the rocket’s biggest and most expensive section — fell back to Earth, reignited its engines, and safely landed on the deck of an autonomous barge named “Of Course I Still Love You”.
“Rocket is extra toasty and hit the deck hard (used almost all of the emergency crush core), but otherwise good,” Musk said in a tweet shortly after the landing.
This wasn’t the booster’s first landing, however. The same one launched and landed itself months ago, and was then refurbished and reintegrated into another rocket — the one used for the June 23 launch of BulgariaSat-1.
Also, because the satellite’s target orbit was tens of thousands of miles higher than a low-Earth orbit, the booster had barely enough fuel to land; in fact, Musk did not expect it to survive.
“Falcon 9 will experience its highest ever reentry force and heat in today’s launch. Good chance rocket booster doesn’t make it back,” he tweeted shortly before launch on Friday.
This marks the second re-launch and re-landing of a previously-flown rocket booster, SpaceX said.
If the company can reliably repeat this feat, over and over again, the implications could be enormous. That’s because nearly all rockets that launch payloads into space fall back to Earth and crash, rendering them as millions of dollars’ worth of garbage.
Musk has said a Falcon 9 booster comprises up to 70% of the entire rocket’s cost to SpaceX. So each time it can land and refurbish the booster, it stands to save millions on the cost required to build a whole rocket. It can then pass on some of those savings to customers by giving a discount on the $US62 million price tag for new Falcon 9.
Discounting an already relatively affordable rocket seems to be opening up the market to new customers. For example, SpaceX gave BulgariaSat (which paid for Friday’s launch) enough of a discount to enable their mission.
“People don’t realise that, for small countries and small companies like us, without SpaceX, there was no way we would ever be able to even think about space,” Maxim Zayakov, he CEO of BulgariaSat, told writer Stephen Clark of Spaceflight Now. “With [SpaceX], it was possible. We got a project. I think, in the future, it’s going to be even more affordable because of reusability.”
SpaceX declined to tell Business Insider about its cost or profit margins, or how much of a discount it’s giving to customers like BulgariaSat for launching with used equipment. But we recently took all available public information, combined with launch market analysis and reports, to estimate those discounts.
If SpaceX is raking in a 40% profit per launch on a Falcon 9 rocket, as the investment firm Jefferies International LLC has estimated, then a new booster may cost SpaceX about $US26 million. This means that if SpaceX re-uses a booster just once, it could be saving as much as $US13 million.
If it uses a booster an average of 15 times, however, SpaceX could be saving much more in the long run — $US24 million, at least compared to a brand-new rocket.
We used these and other estimates to guess how quickly SpaceX could pay back what Musk said was a roughly $US1 billion in reusable rocket technologies. You can read our analysis here — though it doesn’t account for rocket accidents, launch schedule delays, and the emergence of reusable-rocket competitors like Blue Origin.
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