SpaceX is about to answer its critics with a historical first for the company: the recycling and reuse of an orbital rocket booster that it previously launched and landed.
But Elon Musk’s aerospace company isn’t just doing a demonstration flight.
According to a statement released Tuesday morning, SpaceX has worked out a deal to put the expensive SES-10 satellite atop a recycled Falcon 9 — a 229-foot-tall rocket that’s capable of launching 25 tons of payload, or about two elephants’ worth of weight.
So far, Musk’s company has successfully launched and landed six Falcon 9 first-stage booster rockets.
These first stages “boost” a second-stage rocket to a height where the latter can ignite its engines and deliver a payload into orbit. Right before that point, the booster detaches, careens at a hypersonic speed toward Earth, and re-fires its engines to gently land on a robotic drone ship.
Five boosters have pulled off an ocean landing, and another did so on land in Cape Canaveral.
A spokesperson at SpaceX told Business Insider in an email that “SES-10 will launch using a flight-proven first stage from CRS-8 mission in April” — the first rocket in history ever landed on a ship at sea. “We are carrying out careful inspections throughout the entire vehicle, testing each engine individually, and planning a pre-launch static fire at the Cape,” the spokesperson said. (A “static fire” is when they test-fire the rocket’s engines without actually launching it into the air.)
While SpaceX has become famous for its reusable rockets, Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com found Jeff Bezos, was the first contemporary rocket company to launch, land, and then reuse a rocket booster. (That first of four recycled launches happened on Jan. 22, 2016.) Musk and Bezos had a brief spat over the first launch and landing, pulling a sense of competition between the two entrepreneurs’ companies out into the open.
But Musk has noted that the Blue Origin launch was suborbital, to a height of roughly a height of 60 miles, and that it didn’t send anything into orbit.
Launching something into orbit more than 200 miles above Earth at 17,500 mph requires hundreds of times more energy than Blue Origin’s current New Shepherd rocket system, Musk has said. It’s even more difficult to land a rocket booster that helps get the job done.
And launching a spacecraft to geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above Earth — like SES-10 requires — is even tougher.
Reusable rockets aren’t anything new, and have been in use since the 1960s. Yet the models of yesteryear were hindered by costly refurbishments and lack of features that meet the “holy grail” of reusability, as Jessica Orwig has previously reported on Business Insider:
That holy grail is a rocket capable of transporting a spacecraft into stable orbit around Earth, returning in one piece, and being ready for another launch within hours.
The “grail” here is so” holy” because of cost reductions.
Musk has said he hopes to reduce the cost of access to space “by a factor of a hundred” using recyclable rocket systems.
The upcoming SES-10 launch on a recycled Falcon 9 rocket won’t meet that holy grail — the company is just starting to figure out how to refurbish its hangar full of used rockets.
But according to a Space News story about the SES-10 launch by writer Peter B. de Selding, “SES has said it would like to see a reduction of around 30 per cent below SpaceX’s already low commercial launch fees of around $60 million,” but the company has not yet disclosed what the savings for its recycled booster launches might be.
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