After years of hard work, SpaceX has managed to nail its extraordinary launch-and-landing procedure that allows the reuse of its first-stage Falcon 9 booster.
SpaceX boss Elon Musk has now revealed that his team is planning something far bolder for its much larger next-generation Super Heavy rocket that will one day carry the Starship spacecraft into space.
In a tweet posted on Wednesday, December 30, the billionaire entrepreneur who launched SpaceX 18 years ago said the aim is to use the launch tower arm to “catch” the Super Heavy booster when it lands back on Earth soon after lift-off.
Musk wrote: “We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load.”
In other words, unlike the Falcon 9, which uses grid fins to stabilize its descent before landing on legs, the Super Heavy would use fins but no legs, with the launch tower arm serving to keep the rocket upright and supported as it touches down.
In another tweet, Musk said that such a landing would save SpaceX the cost of building legs for the rocket, while at the same time reducing its weight, which would mean less fuel and/or bigger payloads. He added that as it would land back in its launch position on the pad, the booster would be ready to fly again “in under an hour,” highlighting the company’s continuing focus on building a reusable rocket system to dramatically reduce space travel costs.
If the idea of catching a booster and flying it again within 60 minutes sounds a bit far-fetched, remember that Musk once had a crazy idea to land a rocket upright soon after liftoff.
For sure, landing a Super Heavy in this way will be a huge challenge considering the flight accuracy required, and it won’t happen for a while yet, but only a fool would doubt SpaceX’s ability to one day pull it off.
First, Musk’s team needs to conduct further testing on its Starship spacecraft, which recently made its first orbital test flight before exploding in a spectacular fireball. It also needs to begin testing the Super Heavy booster, with its first flight possibly taking place in “a few months,” according to a Musk tweet last week.
When completed, the Super Heavy rocket will be powered by 31 Raptor engines, while the Starship spacecraft will use six Raptor engines for travel and landing on Earth or another planet. Missions could take the Starship to Mars, or beyond.
To better understand the various stages of a future Starship mission, check out this cool animation created earlier this year by two SpaceX fans. It shows the Super Heavy making a landing similar to a Falcon 9 (rather than being caught). Musk was impressed enough to respond to the pair personally, describing the video as “very close to [the] actual expected flight.”
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