CRS-3 Falcon 9 first stage to sport legs and attempt soft splashdown

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX is expected to take another leap towards the full reusability of their Falcon 9 launch vehicle next month, when the rocket’s first stage will be commanded back to Earth for a soft touchdown on water. The CRS-3/SpX-3 Falcon 9 v1.1 will also debut landing legs on its aft for the first time, according to SpaceX Co-Founder Tom Mueller.


The next launch of the Falcon 9 v1.1 is scheduled for March 16, tasked with lofting the CRS-3/SpX-3 Dragon – for the first time on the upgraded rocket – en route to the International Space Station (ISS).

Launching from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex -40 (SLC-40), the Falcon 9 v1.1 will be conducting its fourth launch since being upgraded, its third from SLC-40.

However, along with its first flight with the Dragon spacecraft as its passenger, this next Falcon 9 v1.1 will also be sporting landing legs, allowing for the next milestone in testing towards the rocket becoming fully reusable.

The debut of the Falcon 9 v1.1 – carrying the CASSIOPE satellite – involved the first “boost back” test of the first stage, while sources note there was also a boost back test during the SES-8 mission, or at least the restart of the first stage post staging.

It has not yet confirmed how much testing was involved on the most recent F9 v1.1 mission, which successfully lofted the Thaicom-6 satellite.

Z3AAccording to a speech by Tom Mueller, Co-Founder and VP Propulsion for SpaceX – at the “Exploring the Next Frontier: The Commercialization of Space is Lifting Off” event in Santa Barbara, California, on Wednesday night – the F9 first stage involved in the CASSIOPE launch crashed into the water during the return test.

The problem related to the stage spinning during its return, causing the fuel to centrifuge.

According to Mr. Mueller, the baffles in the tanks were not designed for those stresses, causing debris to get into the engines, resulting in them shutting down prematurely.

Z3A1It has been long-rumored that the Falcon 9 involved with the CRS-3 mission may involve legs being added to its aft. SpaceX officials have so far been unable to answer questions, sent by last month, specific to their reusability efforts.

However, thanks to questions put to Mr. Mueller by a L2 member in attendance at the Central Coast MIT Enterprise Forum event, the SpaceX Co-Founder – who provided permission for his comments to be reported – confirmed legs have been installed on the CRS-3 Falcon 9 v1.1.

Mr. Mueller noted the aim is to conduct a soft landing – or soft touchdown – on water, after the first stage boosts back from its role in aiding Dragon’s ascent uphill.

Z3The first images of the landing legs were revealed via photos taken by local residents – some of which were provided to L2 (along with newly added video) – at SpaceX’s McGregor test facility in Texas last month, with the structures attached to the Grasshopper 2 test vehicle.

Grasshopper 2 is currently being put through its paces with static firings, ahead of what is understood to be one test flight in Texas, prior to the vehicle being shipped to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it will be able to reach higher altitudes.

For the CRS-3 Falcon 9, the legs will be stowed on the aft of the first stage during the ride uphill, prior to – at least by design – deploying via pneumatic cylinders driven by compressed helium once the stage is on the final part of its powered descent.

Z5SpaceX Chief Designer and CEO Elon Musk had already noted the design is a nested, telescoping piston using high pressure helium, given the requirement the system needs to be ultra light.

It is unclear how many milestones the CRS-3 Falcon 9 will undertake, with Mr. Mueller adding their upcoming development program includes a test launch that will aim to go suborbital, prior to collect re-entry data.

Mr. Mueller also provided additional details on SpaceX’s plans for a launch vehicle that is aimed to enable missions to Mars, specifically noting their current developmental progress with the Raptor engine.

That information is currently being evaluated for the purpose of a future article.

(Images: L2 and SpaceX)

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