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Musk’s SpaceX to test reusable rocket for Mars missions

Aims drastically reduce the cost of trips to Mars.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is developing rockets that could be reused, rather than burn up on re-entry to earth’s atmosphere, in the belief they’ll drastically reduce the cost of trips to Mars.

He could make history — and remake the space launch sector — when new technology that captures spent rocket segments is put to the test for the first time tomorrow.

Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. will try to land a Falcon 9 rocket atop an unanchored ocean platform bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean after the missile propels a cargo capsule towards a rendezvous with the International Space Station.

“It could potentially be a significant breakthrough,” said Marco Caceres, director of space studies with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant. “It’s even more significant if it occurs with the program that is already known to be significantly cheaper” than competing launch vehicles.

Rocket-makers from France’s Arianespace SA to United Launch Alliance, a Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp. venture, are already streamlining operations to compete with SpaceX’s $61.2 million price for Falcon 9 launches, the industry’s lowest, Caceres said in a phone interview. Reusing the rocket’s Merlin engines and aluminum-lithium alloy structure would drive costs down further. Musk has said that developing a reusable rocket could cut the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100.

First Musk’s concepts have to work, however. The odds of success on tomorrow’s first mission to retrieve the rocket “are not great — perhaps 50 percent at best,” SpaceX said in a description of the flight on its website.

NASA Commission

Musk will hold an online question-and-answer session via the reddit message board tonight at 9 p.m. Florida time, focused on the rocket launch.

SpaceX plans to launch the two-stage rocket and cargo commissioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from Florida’s Cape Canaveral at 6:20 a.m. local time.

About 157 seconds into flight, when the Falcon 9 is more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) high and traveling more than 10 times the speed of sound, the craft’s main engines will shut down. Four seconds later, the first and second stages will separate.

To help stabilize the 14-story tall first stage during its return to earth, SpaceX plans to relight the engine for a series of three burns.

The first burn will adjust the rocket segment for the correct point of impact, followed by a “supersonic retro propulsion burn” that along with the drag of the atmosphere will slow its speed from 1,300 meters per second (almost 1 mile per second) to about 250 meters per second, according to SpaceX’s website.

Giant X

Four legs will deploy during a final landing burn as the vehicle’s speed slows to about two meters per second. SpaceX also plans to use four grid fins to help control and steer the Falcon 9 as it targets a barge festooned with a bullseye and giant X.

SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, has little margin for error. The floating platform measures 300 feet (91 meters) by 170 feet; the rocket’s legs span 70 feet.

While the space venture successfully guided rockets to soft water landings twice last year, “we could only expect a landing accuracy” of about 10 kilometers, SpaceX said. “For this attempt, we’re targeting a landing accuracy of within 10 meters.”

Any failure could be magnified, Caceres said. Tomorrow’s launch will be high-profile as the first cargo resupply mission since an Antares rocket operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. exploded in a fireball in October.

“That they’re willing to do this with a relatively unproven technology is pretty gutsy,” Caceres said. “He’s willing to take his chances.”

‘We’re Close’

Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of the United Launch Alliance, isn’t convinced the technology is mature, or that there’s adequate payoff for the extra fuel and thicker structure required to guide the craft back to earth.

“You’re asking the expendable launch guy what he thinks about reusable engines,” Bruno said during a Nov. 13 address at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “Their time will come. It’s not here yet.”

Musk is confident that SpaceX will succeed, if not tomorrow, then on one of the dozen launches planned over the next year.

“We’re close,” he told an audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October.

©2015 Bloomberg News

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