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ROCKET SCIENCE AUGUST 43

IT IS
ROCKET
SCIENCE
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NASA/JOEL KOWSKY

Orbital Sciences
Antares rocket suffers
a catastrophic failure
on 28 October 2014

skyatnightmagazine.com 2017
44

he International Space Station is in a Although the Space about 4,800km/h and for Mars about 11,260km/h.

T constant state of free fall towards Earth.


What keeps it up there is how fast its
travelling. Due to Earths curvature, the
ground below the ISS is plummeting away from the
ISS just as quickly as it is falling. Striking this fine
Shuttle was reusable, the
rockets that blasted it into
orbit were not. Once their
fuel had been spent they
would be jettisoned and
allowed to burn up in
Reaching orbital velocity is what makes rocket
engineering so difficult. To hit such a speed,
roughly 90 per cent of an entire rockets weight at
lift-off is the fuel required to deliver its payload to
orbit. The remaining 10 per cent is split, roughly
balance is how we get objects to orbit. Earths atmosphere equally, between the rocket itself and whatever its
Getting into space is relatively easy; you just go launching into space. Thats not much play with.
95km up. But staying in space by reaching orbital By comparison, about 45 per cent of a commercial
velocity is hard. To accommodate Earths size aircrafts weight at take-off is the fuel while the
and gravity, you need to accelerate horizontally other 55 per cent is made up of the aircraft itself,
to 28,000km/h. For the Moon, orbital velocity is the passengers, the crew and their luggage.

HOW ROCKETS WORK The technology that blasts rockets into space
Inter-stage adaptors hold The payload is
The first-stage fuels its engines from ignition to an
each stage together and what the rocket
altitude of about 190km. To avoid carrying dead
release them when needed delivers to space
weight, the first-stage and its engines separate from
the rest of the rocket once the fuel is spent

The fairing protects the


payload aerodynamically
Once the second-stage engine and thermally during
ignites, typically at an altitude of launch, and separates
200km, the rocket is already turned from the second-stage just
over horizontally. The second-stage before payload release
completes the acceleration phase to
get the payload to orbital velocity

Launch is vertical to get through Earths atmosphere, and its Boosters are auxiliary rockets for the first-stage that give extra
associated drag, as quickly as possible. Once through, the thrust while its charging through the atmosphere. They separate
gimballed first-stage engines turn the rocket over horizontally once expended, typically at an altitude of about 80km

skyatnightmagazine.com 2017
ROCKET SCIENCE AUGUST 45

Even though they typically cost around 100


million each, roughly one in 20 rockets still fails.
To reach orbit, a certain amount of energy is
needed to overcome the pull of Earths gravity and
accelerate to the required velocity. For its weight,
rocket fuel is the most powerful form of controllable
energy we know of. As it burns, theres just enough
energy in that fuel to carry its own weight and a
little bit extra into orbit. Yet if Earth were slightly
larger or heavier it wouldnt be possible to put
anything into space with todays technology.
Any extra weight added to make the rocket safer,
by making structures stronger or carrying back-up
parts, is weight no longer available for the payload,
whether its a spacecraft, satellite or astronauts. It
seems as though the safer we build rockets, the less
useful they are to us. Rocket engineering is a razor-
fine balancing act between the conflicting objectives
of reliability, cargo capacity and cost.
In the last few years, however, the game has
changed; private companies such as SpaceX and Rocket fuel is the first-stage landing system into their architectures
Blue Origin have initiated a shift towards reusable most powerful form of without impractically compromising their ability
controllable energy we
rockets. The question is: how? Surely the extra fuel to deliver a payload. And why, for the past 60
have, but a lot of it is
required and landing hardware renders a rocket needed to get rockets years, weve just been letting our rockets burn up
useless by taking up the weight budget available off the ground in the atmosphere or crash into the ocean after
for cargo? No government-backed space agency is theyve carried their cargo into space. Rockets were
even close to making economically viable reusable disposable, unable to have their construction and
rockets so what are these companies doing that development costs spread over multiple launches,
makes it possible? and were all the more expensive for it.
Imagine how expensive a ticket to
Under one roof fly on an Airbus A380 would be if
SpaceXs Falcon 9 rocket the aircraft were thrown
is made under one roof,
by one private company
Imagine how expensive a ticket away after a single
flight. Imagine how
with one leader. Sheet
metal literally enters the
WR \ RQ DQ $LUEXV $ ZRXOG conservatively designed
that aircraft would be if
building from one side
and rockets are wheeled
EH LI WKH DLUFUDIW ZHUH WKURZQ it couldnt be inspected
after flight tests had been
out of the other towards
the launch pad.
DZD\ DIWHU D VLQJOH LJKW carried out. This, until
recently, was the model
Before such private enterprises, rockets were upon which the rocket industry operated. And it
made by dozens of independent bodies scattered was this approach that was throttling the growth
over a country or continent directed by a of the space industry. But it no longer applies.
bureaucracy-laden government, or a consortium By keeping everything under one roof and
of governments, burdened by ever-changing outsourcing as little as possible, managerial and
NASA, ISTOCK X 2, ILLUSTRATION BY PAUL WOOTTON, NASA/KIM SHIFLETT, SPACEX X 3

Everything at SpaceX
politics. The inefficiencies involved with this level collaborative inefficiencies have been reduced and
happens in one building,
of management and collaborative disconnect led from materials storage the pace of design and innovation has accelerated.
to expensive, outdated and conservatively designed to component production On top of this, unlike for government-backed space
rockets. Hence its been impossible to integrate a and final assembly agencies, the commercial pressure to move quickly >

skyatnightmagazine.com 2017
46

BATTLE OF THE
BALLISTICS
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FAIRING (REUSABLE)
Diameter: 5.2m
Height: 13m
Has thrusters and
steerable parachutes
for re-entry and soft
ocean landing for reuse.
FAIRING
SECOND-STAGE Diameter: 5.4m
Powered by single Height: 20m
934kN thrust Merlin
vacuum engine
burning liquid oxygen
and kerosene.

HYPERSONIC SECOND-STAGE
GRID FINS Powered by a 180kN
Control first-stage thrust Vinci engine
flight path and burning liquid
orientation during hydrogen and
re-entry. oxygen.

FIRST-STAGE
(REUSABLE)
FIRST-STAGE
One or three boosters,
Powered by a
each powered by nine
1,350kN thrust
Merlin engines that
Vulcain 2.1 engine
provide 8,227kN of
burning liquid
thrust by burning
hydrogen and
liquid oxygen and
oxygen.
kerosene. Built in
redundancy allows
for operation with up
to two engine failures BOOSTERS
on each booster. Two or four P120C
solid-propellant
LANDING LEGS boosters providing up
Deploy just before to 3,500kN of thrust
first-stage landing and for the first-stage.
act as stable platform.

FALCON 9 FT FALCON HEAVY ARIANE 62 ARIANE 64

FALCON 9 FT FALCON HEAVY ARIANE 62 ARIANE 64


Height 70m 70m 62m 62m
Mass 549 tonnes 1,421 tonnes 500 tonnes 800 tonnes
Cost 48m (expendable) 109m (expendable) 65m (aim) 79m (aim)
31m (reusable) 86m (centre expended)
70m (reusable)
First flight 2015 2017 (aim) 2020 (aim) 2020 (aim)
Payload to Earth orbit 22,800kg (expendable) 63,800kg (expendable) ~9,800kg ~20,000kg
9,600kg (reusable) ~53,800kg (centre expended)
~26,900kg (reusable)
Max payload to geo transfer orbit 8,300kg (expendable) 26,700kg (expendable) 5,000kg 11,000kg
5,500kg (reusable) ~16,000kg (centre expended)
8,500kg (reusable)
Manufacturer/organisation SpaceX (US) SpaceX (US) ESA Consortium ESA Consortium

skyatnightmagazine.com 2017
ROCKET SCIENCE AUGUST 47

> towards profit and competitiveness has been an


SpaceX (left) and Blue Blue Origin already has
additional driver for private companies building Origin (right) have both an orbital rocket called
and flying space rockets. And because of this, over successfully landed New Glenn planned to
the last few years, theyve been changing the game. reusable rockets follow on from
New Shepard
The pace of progress
More than a dozen Falcon 9 first-stage boosters
have now landed safely. SpaceX has even developed
landing capabilities for its Falcon-class payload
fairing. These parts are being studied to further
optimise their designs. The fruits of these activities
will be revealed later this year in a new variant
of the Falcon 9, the Block 5. Structural fat will be
trimmed in all the right places, modifications will
be implemented to reduce reuse and refurbishment The pace at which SpaceX and Blue Origin are
costs, and upgraded rocket engines will be innovating is unheard of in government space
integrated to further increase its capabilities. agencies. For example, ESAs Ariane 5 rocket
Blue Origin has also landed, studied, developed first flew in 1996, before either private company
and reused several first stages of its sub-orbital ABOUT THE WRITER
existed. A moderate renovation will take the form
New Shepard rocket. This is a good stepping stone 'U $VK 'RYH -D\ LV D of the Ariane 6, with a first flight expected in 2021.
towards its New Glenn orbit-class rocket, which spacecraft engineer In terms of architecture and capability, though
the company expects to start flying in 2019. Before DQG PDQDJHU DW costing 3.5 billion to develop, little distinguishes
that, however, New Shepard is being put forward 2[IRUG 6SDFH the two rockets. Theres no improvement in
as a product for the space tourism market and Blue Systems with a overall efficiency and theres no reusability. This
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Origin intends to open the doors for commercial single development cost is roughly equal to all
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sub-orbital flights next year. development costs incurred by both SpaceX and
Blue Origin combined, since their inceptions.
Right now, though the same class of rocket, a
Falcon 9 costs roughly between one fifth and one
third of an Ariane 5. ESA is ambitiously (some would
say, unrealistically) aiming to halve the cost of the
Ariane 6, with respect to the Ariane 5, through
improvements in fabrication techniques. If ESA
somehow manages to do this, the Ariane 6 will still not
ISTOCK, SPACEX X 4, ESADAVID DUCROS/2017, BLUE ORIGIN X 2

be cost competitive with even the current Falcon 9,


let alone what other companies such as Blue Origin
and Rocket Lab could have on offer by 2021. Geopolitical
questions aside, the business case for ESA moving
forward with this development seems tiny.
The likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin are moving
swiftly past government space agencies, but we
havent seen anything yet. Theyve shifted up a gear
and are pressing the accelerator. Now that theyre
SpaceX can inspect landing rockets, they have access to deep insights no
returned Falcon 9 rockets other company or government agency has and will
such as this one to quickly
be improving the efficiency and cost effectiveness
refine the models design
of their rockets drastically over the years to come. S

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