SpaceX has discovered what caused its Falcon 9 rocket to crash land and explode
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The company's second attempt in history to land a rocket on a floating platform in the ocean on April 14 didn't go exactly according to plan.
The good news is that this second landing attempt missed the mark for a different reason than the first attempt: Unlike the first try last January, where the problem concerned the fins at the top of the rocket, the problem this time around was the legs at its bottom, which means SpaceX fixed their grid issue from last time.
Although the rocket died in a fiery, explosive blaze, the latest attempt was still an improvement from the first: The rocket spent a total of 10 seconds on the platform before tipping over and disintegrating. Last January, the rocket exploded as soon as it contacted the barge.
Now, SpaceX has pinpointed the problem and is that much closer to successfully landing a rocket with the purpose of reusing it - a game-changing feat that would usher in a new era of cheap commercial spaceflight powered by reusable rockets.
The rocket did a great job slowing down as it landed on the platform, but as you can see in the GIF below, the rocket toppled over shortly after touch down instead of remaining upright:
So, the big problem in this case was that the rocket started tipping in the first place. On Twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the tipping was the result of a "slower than expected throttle valve response."
In other words, the rocket descended too quickly. That's what Musk meant in his tweet shortly after launch on April 14:
Ascent successful. Dragon enroute to Space Station. Rocket landed on droneship, but too hard for survival.- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 14, 2015
The job of a rocket's throttle valve is to regulate how much fluid reaches the engines and therefore how much fuel it has to power the rocket. As the first-stage Falcon 9 descended toward the platform, it fired its engines multiple times to slow it down to a walking pace in preparation for landing. But it appears that the throttle valve didn't generate enough power to slow the rocket down for a successful landing.
At first, the rocket was right on target, coming in at a beautiful, completely vertical angle:
You can see thrusters at the top of the rocket firing to try and correct the angle, but to no avail.scheduled for June 19.
Courtesy of George Worthington and John Gardi
Shortly after confirming the throttle valve problem, he tweeted a video of a Falcon 9 rocket test flight and landing at SpaceX's rocket development facility in Texas, uploaded to YouTube in April of 2014.
Although the rocket's landing did not go according to plan, the other half of the launch mission was a success.
In many ways, these landing attempts on a floating platform are more difficult than the ultimate goal of setting these rockets down on land because the platform is susceptible to the harsh winds and rocky waves of the Atlantic ocean. The floating platforms, however, are tens of miles from land and therefore a safer testing ground far away from any residential areas.
That's why SpaceX will have to succeed in the ocean, first.
Check out a successful landing of a Falcon 9 rocket at SpaceX's rocket development facility:
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