The image of a rocket just about to take off is iconic: a tense and exciting few seconds marked by a stoic countdown and finally, “liftoff.”
What about the opposite end of the expedition, though? What happens to a rocket once it has completed its mission? Most of the time it winds up as debris, but some of the tech industry’s brightest minds are working to change that.
Waste Not, Want Not
In an age that is becoming increasingly environmentally conscious, it comes as no surprise that some of the companies on the forefront of technology have made great strides in developing something known as reusable rockets.
Rockets used to return to Earth as used up shells, often becoming litter at the bottom of the ocean since that’s often where they landed. In the last 10 years, though, both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have worked toward creating a better option for their companies Blue Origin and SpaceX.
Blue Origin was technically the first to achieve this goal. It happened in 2015 when their Blue Shepherd exited the atmosphere to leave a pod and return to Earth. While the feat was impressive, Blue Origin didn’t technically enter outer space, which requires a great deal more power.
Though it took several years longer, SpaceX eventually perfected the concept of reusable rockets with its rockets Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. By 2018, SpaceX completed more than 20 launches with its reusable Falcon Heavy, and those expeditions did enter outer space.
How It Works
An easy way to understand the difference between reusable rockets and traditional rockets is to simply think of this new incarnation as a technological advancement, or an improvement upon traditional rockets.
The mechanics are largely the same, aside from the fact that reusable rockets are generally equipped with extra engines to maintain control for the entire expedition, including re-entry. However, reusable rockets must have a fair amount more computing potential.
This is because they have to account for things like wind speed in order to understand and correct their trajectory; since reusable rockets are aiming for a specific landing target, there’s very little margin for error in these capabilities.
What This Means for Space Travel
Aside from obviously being an environmentally conscious alternative, reusable rockets will also greatly cut down on the expense of sending people and equipment to space. When agencies don’t have to build an entirely new rocket for every single launch, the efficiency with which they can travel will be massively increased.
Though the ultimate vision of SpaceX is to offer its technology to governments through contracts, Blue Origin has a slightly different vision. Their reusable rockets can be used as something of a tourist attraction, offering those wealthy enough to pay for it a few seconds outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
In either case, reusable rockets make space travel more financially viable and environmentally responsible; with the vision that rockets may someday be reused like airplanes, there’s no telling what kinds of space exploration may be possible.
Whether you’re interested in paying Blue Origin for a trip outside of the atmosphere, or are simply excited by the prospect of SpaceX technology allowing humans greater range in the universe, reusable rockets are an integral part of the vision.