SpaceX will launch a new mission to the International Space Station today (April 2), yet it’s a familiar flight for the vehicles in question: Both the Falcon 9 rocket booster and the Dragon spacecraft it will carry are refurbished veterans of previous flights to the orbiting laboratory.
In the year since Elon Musk’s path-breaking space company first flew a used rocket booster, it has flown ten previously launched boosters—including two on the debut of the massive Falcon Heavy rocket in February.
You can watch today’s mission on SpaceX’s livestream starting about 15 minutes before the 4:30pm ET launch window:
This will be the last flight for this rocket booster, as it won’t be recovered—SpaceX is clearing out inventory ahead of the first flight of what executives say is the final version of their workhorse Falcon 9 at the end of this month.
If anything delays the launch, another opportunity will present itself tomorrow (April 3) at 4:08pm ET.
Reusability, according to Musk, is the key to making access to space cheap enough for the whole range of human activity—research, economic production, exploration, even colonization. Other rocket companies were reluctant to embrace reusability because they could not justify the expensive investment at the current rate of flights. SpaceX bet that cheaper rockets would mean more missions to orbit.
While Musk has previously said that reusability would allow SpaceX to offer steep discounts, as much as 30%, so far satellite operators tell Quartz that the company is limiting price cuts as it recoups the cost of developing its technology. To be fair, SpaceX’s rocket is already the cheapest orbital launcher on the market, starting at $62 million. NASA will not recoup any direct savings from the use of the reusable vehicles, though a spokesperson says the agency negotiates “equitable arrangements” like additional services when SpaceX deploys previously flown hardware.
Flying 11 reusable boosters in about a year would be impressive—that’s more than the entire number of rockets launched by United Launch Alliance, SpaceX’s principal US competitor, in 2017.
Still, there’s still a long way to go before SpaceX hits its true goal, which is turning around a reusable rocket in as few as 48 hours between launches. While other spacecraft have been largely reusable, notably NASA’s space shuttle, the cost of refurbishment between flights—a process with more than a million procedures—meant that in practice there were limited benefits. SpaceX’s reused boosters typically fly again after about six months.
Deploying a debris destroyer
Most of the 5.8 metric tons of cargo on today’s flight represents routine stuff for the ISS: Food, water, scientific experiments, even clothing. Some of the research projects are vital to future exploration, like a small device designed to simulate artificial gravity. And one boasts a more near-term application: The Remove Debris project.
This is a satellite system developed by SSTL, the UK firm that has played a leading role in developing the new generation of small satellites that help drive down the cost of deploying computers in orbit. One side-effect of the burgeoning number of tiny satellites are growing fears about space debris, which unauthorized launches and plans for huge new constellations have only spurred.
Remove Debris is a one-meter cube that will be the largest satellite deployed from the ISS. It is designed to test several technologies for disposing of space debris, particularly dead satellites. Upon deployment, expected in May, the satellite will eject a smaller satellite target and try to snare it with a net, then eject another small satellite to test range-finding sensors. It will also shoot a tethered harpoon and a target that it extends from its body, and finally deploy a drag sail to pull it back down into the atmosphere, where it will be burnt up and destroyed.