SpaceX rockets

The commercial space exploration start-up, SpaceX, has been making lots of headlines recently with the success of their first officially contracted cargo delivery to the International Space Station. As a contractor to NASA under the Commercial Crew Development program, SpaceX has already flown up to the ISS twice with their Dragon spacecraft on top of their Falcon 9 rocket, an impressive 9-engine rocket with a total thrust of 5.00MN/1.12 million lbs. (On a really cool side note, you can see the Falcon 9 user’s manual here.)

Last week, Wired did a story on SpaceX’s testing facility in McGregor, Texas. The story is filled with awesome photographs of the facilities where SpaceX has been testing the Falcon family of rockets since 2003.

One of the cooler photos in the set shows the Merlin 1D engine, SpaceX’s new engine that’s capable of a staggering 654,000N/147,000 lbs of thrust, with a 9-engine rocket producing 5.89MN/1.3 million lbs of thrust in the atmosphere, and even more when out in space.

These numbers are pretty astounding. To give some perspective, the Merlin 1D’s thrust-to-weight ratio is over 150:1, which is 2 times greater than that of the space shuttle’s SSME rocket engine, and almost 60% better than that of the Saturn V (the most powerful rocket ever built). This makes the Merlin 1D one of the most efficient rocket engines ever built. This baby is a powerhouse.

Also, SpaceX is currently developing a massive rocket that they’re calling the Falcon Heavy, which will be equipped with 27 Merlin 1Ds, producing a jaw-dropping total thrust of nearly 19MN (nearly 4 million lbs). For comparison, the Saturn V rocket, which took dozens of US astronauts to the Moon during the Apollo program, had a first-stage launch thrust of 34MN, or about 7.7 million lbs. This is nearly twice the thrust of the Falcon Heavy, but there are other concerns to take into account. Each launch of the Saturn V cost the United States nearly $1.2 billion (inflation-adjusted for 2012), but SpaceX predicts that the Falcon Heavy will cost $80M-$125M per launch. That’s half the thrust for a tenth of the cost. Finally, we have private space companies manufacturing rockets that produce thrust of the same order of magnitude as the most powerful rockets ever built. It makes me optimistic for the future…

Wired’s article also had a cool photo of test-fires from the Draco thrusters, which are used for 3-axis attitude control and maneuvering by the Dragon spacecraft. I’m working on a more comprehensive post for this blog on attitude control–it’s cool stuff.

They also showed this amazing photo of the exhaust plume from a SuperDraco thruster, a more powerful thruster over 200 times more powerful than the Draco thruster. These powerful thrusters will make it possible for the Dragon spacecraft to land gently back on Earth by slowing its descent with downward-facing propulsion, not too unlike the “Sky Crane” descent stage of the Mars Curiosity rover.

SpaceX is working on some truly exciting projects in the field of Earth-to-orbit propulsion, and their founder Elon Musk has even expressed interest in future manned missions to Mars, which it’s rumored the company is already exploring. This is definitely a company that’s already changing the future of the space industry.