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Space Science

SpaceX Tries Out Its New SuperDraco Rocket Engine 118

cylonlover writes "SpaceX, the California company that is developing the reusable Dragon spacecraft, recently test-fired its new SuperDraco engine. Presently, the Dragon capsule is equipped with less-advanced Draco engines, which are designed for maneuvering the spacecraft while in orbit and during reentry. The SuperDraco, however, is intended to allow the astronauts to escape if an emergency occurs during the launch."
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SpaceX Tries Out Its New SuperDraco Rocket Engine

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  • Impressive (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Covalent ( 1001277 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @02:27PM (#38905049)
    Seems like several times a year now we are hearing about SpaceX successes - and few if any failures. They are scheduled to begin testing and then delivering cargo to the Space Station within the next year. It will be able to launch cargo to the space station at about 1/10th the cost (around $50 million as opposed to nearly $500 million) as the space shuttle.

    Perhaps all that talk of a moon base, trips to Mars, etc. aren't that far-fetched after all.
    • Re:Impressive (Score:5, Informative)

      by taiwanjohn ( 103839 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @02:39PM (#38905239)

      Actually their first ISS rendezvous mission was scheduled for this month, but it recently got postponed to March. On this first mission they will only "berth" with ISS, rather than docking. (They'll fly up close enough so that the ISS manipulator arm can grapple the Dragon capsule and haul it in.) If that goes well, they'll be allowed to actually dock with ISS on the next flight.

      And you're right, they are already underselling every other vendor on the launch market. Even the Chinese say they can't possibly beat SpaceX's price-per-pound to orbit.

      • The Chinese will soon "learn" the secrets to mimic SpaceX's techniques. Supposedly there was a British company with a reusable launch vehicle that were claiming to have even lower costs than SpaceX's- but they were only in the feasibility stage with ESA last year. If they can actually get past that and to the launch stage we could have a real healthy battle going on. Although- knowing Britain- the unions will somehow get involved and tripple the costs- and then it will never get built- or the Germans wil

        • Re:Impressive (Score:5, Informative)

          by hackertourist ( 2202674 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @02:57PM (#38905539)

          That would be Skylon, they've been at it for years on minuscule amounts of funding, trying to develop a revolutionary engine that can use atmospheric oxygen for the first part of the ascent. They can trace their roots back to HOTOL. What they need is a billionaire investor.

        • Re:Impressive (Score:5, Insightful)

          by demachina ( 71715 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @04:05PM (#38906741)

          SpaceX is specifically avoiding patenting any of their innovations because they are well aware the Chinese would just use the patents as a guide to copy and steal their technology. Assuming they can keep their networks secure and they don't have any rogue employees selling their secrets they have a reasonable chance of keeping their less obvious, more technical, innovations from the Chinese at least for a time. SpaceX's fairly compact operations and work force along with avoidance of third party suppliers also reduces somewhat the potential for secrets being stolen.

          Never really understood why clueless western politicians let China in to the WTO when it was so obvious that IP theft was at the core of their plan to bury the west.

          • Never really understood why clueless western politicians let China in to the WTO when it was so obvious that IP theft was at the core of their plan to bury the west.

            They let China into the WTO so they had some way of at least partially controlling them. You think the Chinese are incapable of sifting through the US Patent Office's public online records without being WTO members?

            • They should have either not been allowed in to WTO if they were going to continue rampant IP theft since I'm pretty sure its frowned on under WTO protocols, or they should have been subjected to trade barriers preventing them from selling their products based on stolen IP in the West.

              The West pretty much bent over for them, let them steal all their IP, removed all the trade barriers for goods coming out of China, while letting China retain massive barriers preventing western goods and companies from enterin

            • And yet, China continues to cheat at everything that WTO stands for. Basically, giving them WTO, constrains the west, but China just flaunts it. And having given them perm. MFN is destroying America. At this point, America should implement scaled tariffs, esp. against China. [americanthinker.com] Interestingly, WTO not only makes it legal, but encourages it. Only fools, or those wanting to destroy either America or the west, would oppose it.
          • Well spoken, Bruce.

            From what I've seen online, I gather that SpaceX is very aware their IP risks, and take steps to minimize such leaks. I hope it works for them.

          • Hopefully SpaceX will eventually patent their technology so it isn't lost forever if/when the company goes out of business.
            • And what makes you think that they will go out of business?
              Also, iff they go out of business, then the tech would be sold off to pay off their debt.
        • by turgid ( 580780 )

          Although- knowing Britain- the unions will somehow get involved and tripple the costs- and then it will never get built- or the Germans will build it instead.

          No, there will be a hostile take-over of the company by a greedy and corrupt competitor or venture capital firm that will asset-strip the company, pay the new board of directors vast salaries, bonuses and share issues, meanwhile radically cutting back the workforce and letting the company fail.

          The bankrupt remains of the company will then be sold off

        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          the unions will somehow get involved and tripple the costs

          I don't see how, and in any case, as the head of a then-nonunion airline said 30 years ago, "any company that gets a union deserves one." Treat your employees with respect, pay them well and give them good benefits and they won't form a union. Treat them like commodities and they will.

          I wonder if SpaceX is a union shop? Probably not, they haven't been around long enough to start abusing their workers yet.

          I was 6 when the Russians sent Sputnik up, 17

          • I think SpaceX have too few employees at the moment for a formal union to be necessary. My comments about British unions was more tongue in cheek than anything really though- parallelling how unions killed Britain's once thriving car manufacturing industry to the point now where Britain has no major production car brands based in that country... although they do make cars for other companies. Shame if space transport went the same way.

            Obviously there are pros- and cons to unions. In the late 19th century

            • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

              That's the trouble with world-wide free trade -- labor is cheap in places where rent is thirty bucks a month, or there's a repressive political regime. Neither American nor European workers can compete with workers in an impoverished country.

      • Re:Impressive (Score:5, Informative)

        by Mercano ( 826132 ) <mercano@noSPaM.gmail.com> on Thursday February 02, 2012 @02:55PM (#38905475)
        No, berthing is to be standard operating procedure for cargo flights; Common Berthing Mechanism [wikipedia.org] connectors, such as the one found on the nose of the Dragon, don't have any of the shock absorbers required for docking. As it also requires the Canada arm to unberth, CBM isn't well suited for manned flights, as in an evacuation scenario, there'd be no one left on the station to operate the arm, so crewed version of the Dragon will probably feature either APAS [wikipedia.org] or NDS/LIDS [wikipedia.org] docking connectors. CBM is preferred for cargo transfer, however, because it has a larger hatch, big enough to move fully assembled equipment racks through them. Japan's HTV cargo vehicles are also berthed via Canada Arm.
        • Thanks for the clarification. I knew there was some distinction between this and future crewed flights, but apparently I got the details wrong.

        • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @04:03PM (#38906705) Homepage

          Canadarm! Canadarm! One word!

          Lovely post, thank you for the info, but just gotta correct the name because "Canadarm" is an awesome name for an awesome piece of equipment.

          Side note to anyone from DARPA listening: When you build your first orbital weapon, please call it the "Americannon". You don't have to give me anything for the name! It's yours! A Distinguished Service award or somesuch would be nice though...

          • Re:Impressive (Score:5, Interesting)

            by EdZ ( 755139 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @04:50PM (#38907491)
            Best thing about the Canadarm: the manipulator is attached with a series of frangible nuts ('explosive bolts' to the rest of us), so in the event of an uncontrolled swing while holding an object the manipulator can be jettisoned to prevent it crashing into the station.

            Yes, the ISS can rocket-punch.
      • Re:Impressive (Score:4, Insightful)

        by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @05:52PM (#38908411)

        On this first mission they will only "berth" with ISS, rather than docking. (They'll fly up close enough so that the ISS manipulator arm can grapple the Dragon capsule and haul it in.) If that goes well, they'll be allowed to actually dock with ISS on the next flight.

        I had understood that they were planning on carrying some ISS consumables up this flight, on the assumption that they'll succeed.

        If they do succeed, they've delivered their first cargo to ISS. If they fail, nothing really important lost (the cost of the consumables is peanuts next to the cost of the launch).

        They are also, as I understand it, planning on delivering a couple small satellites to orbit on the same launch....

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

      Seems like several times a year now we are hearing about SpaceX successes - and few if any failures.

      That's because most of things you hear about are things like this engine test that would simply be swept under the rug if they didn't go right. I.E. minor 'successes' spun for PR value. When it comes to real successes, like their launch record, the situation isn't nearly so pretty.

      It will be able to launch cargo to the space station at about 1/10th the cost (around $50 million as opposed to nearly $500 mill

      • You are not making a fair comparison. The dragon capsule is for delivering goods. For delivering "modules" you would use something else.

        Falcon Heavy - 53,000 kg
        Space Shuttle - 24,400 kg
        Falcon 9 - 10,450 kg

        http://www.spacex.com/falcon_heavy.php [spacex.com]

        In short, it's a more than adequate replacement. To use your car analogy, the Space Shuttle was an El Camino (with flames) kept long past its prime, and the SpaceX offerings are more like the rental flatbed trucks from the local U-Haul.

      • Re:Impressive (Score:4, Informative)

        by manoweb ( 1993306 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @06:40PM (#38909047)
        Only two words: Falcon Heavy. It's being assembled and will hopefully launch by the end of the year. Twice the payload of the Shuttle.
        • I'm glad Elon Musk is such an inventive individual, but I'm worried that new promises come flying out of his mouth faster than he delivers on existing commitments. Sometimes it seems like he has ADHD.

          It seems like it would be more credible if he were to slow down on the new promises, and give his organization time to fufill existing commitments.

          • You mean like when he had yet to get Falcon 1 reliable, yet to even build Falcon 9 and he was talking about building Dragon? I scolded him similarly when he first announced dragon for just what you said, but i was wrong.
            He did deliver on those promises, now he's planning the next phase and talking about it. Would you prefer he kept things secret?
            As an example in the branch of engineering I work (ASIC design) it can easily take 4 years from "hey this is a cool idea, let's draw it on the whiteboard" to it bei

        • And still lacks the majority of the capabilities of the Shuttle.

      • now you need five Dragon launches to (incompletely) replace one Shuttle flight. etc... etc.

        Well, at 1/10th the price, that still sounds like it's half the cost.

      • Or, to put it in the terms of Slashdot's favorite form of analogy: No water. Less space than a shuttle. Lame.


  • Close to home (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Moheeheeko ( 1682914 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @02:28PM (#38905069)
    My dad works at the airforce base where they are going to try to launch and land this thing, apparently the goal is to land it right back onto the launch pad it started from, or at least thats what they guys on base are saying.
    • Re:Close to home (Score:5, Informative)

      by Moheeheeko ( 1682914 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @02:33PM (#38905159)
      • I think they're planning to do the launch of the Falcon Heavy [wikipedia.org] from Vandenberg sometime in 2013. I'm not sure if this has anything specifically to do with their plans for reusability, though I'm sure they'd like all their rockets to be reusable eventually.

        • Either way, im just stoked at the chance of having a front row seat for this launch, though would probably be more awesome to see it land as its supposed to.
    • My understanding is that they will not be trying a powered landing on the first launch. The reason is that the super dracos are not built into the capsules yet. HOWEVER, assuming that it was, that would mean that dragon was ready for human launches, though it might require multiple tests and launches.
      The reason is that SpaceX has everything else ready for the conversion of dragon to human launch: controls and software, seats, and ELCSS.
      My understanding is that LIDS is also ready to go.
    • I still don't understand why they would do that, it absolutely slaughters performance to return to the launch site. You're much better off landing downrange, and then refueling it and sending it back if need be.

  • by taiwanjohn ( 103839 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @02:29PM (#38905079)

    Summary misses the point... yes, they need a launch-abort system to meet NASA's human-rating specs, but the real goal of the SuperDraco engines is to enable propulsive landings with pinpoint accuracy. They claim that a Dragon capsule so-equipped will be able to land on "any surface" in the solar system.

    • I know this is facetious, but a statement like the claim "that a Dragon capsule so-equipped will be able to land on "any surface" in the solar system" leads me to wonder about Jupiter and the other gas giants.

      Probably a more important capability would be to not only be able to land on any surface in the solar system but to also take off and return to orbit. Has there been any talk about this?


      • I'd say it's more of an exaggeration than a "facetious" comment. I'm just quoting from SpaceX's PR propaganda... that's why I put the phrase in quotes. Obviously it depends on the conditions, but in theory they have enough delta-V to land on any "hospitable" surface... eg: Mars. (I've seen some scenarios where they use strap-on tanks to increase fuel/payload capacity.)

        In any case, it's a pretty cool hack to use side-mount thrusters for launch-abort instead of a tower system (like Apollo). Not only does it a

        • Agreed - although I would call it a design feature (and not a "hack").

          I haven't read much on the Dragon, does this mean that the proposed return process is:
          1. Re-entry using traditional heat shields,
          2. Braking parachutes to reduce speed from supersonic to a few kmhs,
          3. SuperDracos for soft touchdown?

          I can see that would minimize the damage to the spacecraft significantly compared to a water/ground landing and allow it to be reused much more cheaply and quickly.


          • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @03:41PM (#38906379) Homepage


            Recall that the Soyuz [russianspaceweb.com] capsules use essentially the same approach although the 'soft landing engines' are quite a bit less sophisticated than the Super Dracos.

            An interesting aside, the Falcon / SuperDraco system could be repurposed to a general non manned lander for Mars, Venus and the other smaller planets. Might make for some 'economies of scale' to have a basic platform that worked.

          • Its steps one and three. The SuperDracos are to eliminate step two. At least per the video they released a few months back.

            SpaceX Reusability [spacex.com]
            • But for e.g. Mars, the atmosphere is so thin step 1 will contribute very little delta-V. Are they claiming they can brake from orbital speed to 0?

              (SpaceX can be frustratingly vague about such things)

          • AFAIK, their plan does not involve parachutes. They use heat shields to reach terminal velocity, then rockets to land from there. (Parachutes are just a backup system in case the rockets fail.)

          • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

            I would call it a design feature (and not a "hack").

            That's actually correct. You don't design a "hack," a hack is using equipment or a tool to do what it was never designed to do. Using the Apollo 13 LEM as a return vehicle was a hack. Using the command module's scrubbers that didn't fit the LEM was a hack.

            Using a butter knife as a screwdriver is a hack. See? Your grandma's a hacker!

            Running Linux on your X-Box is a hack. Running it on your PC is not.

    • Any surface or any solid surface? The surface of the moon is a fair bit different than the surface of most of the Earth (water) or the sun, if you can consider it to have a surface.

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      They claim that a Dragon capsule so-equipped will be able to land on "any surface" in the solar system.

      In *theory*, sure. But if they tried to land on Mars, the intelligence arm of Mars' Planetary Defense Agency would arrange for the capsule to have one of their trademark "mysterious accidents".

    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )
      Awesome! Land it on the surface of the Sun.
  • I'm pretty sure I heard them testing the SuperDracos last night. It was loud enough to make me stop what I was doing and stare blankly in the general direction of McGregor, but not loud enough to rattle windows and set off car alarms like the falcons.
  • Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I'm not impressed by names like SuperDraco which sound like somebody I'd find on Twitter expounding upon their amazing Pokemon collection.

    Can we go back to decent rocket names? Something like A-1 or Z-2?

    • Fuddy-duddy
    • You're a fuddy-duddy.

    • Boooooo! Which is more likely to get public interest?

      AB-745 - or thunderdemon? C-11 - or firedragon.

      I'm sorry- but I want my manned mission to mars to be on something memorable like the thrustdoomfireballcruncher not the X-23. Now if the "Pikachu, I choose you" mission takes man to Titan, then I'll be disappointed. "Pikachu of Doom" rocket might be more acceptible.

      • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

        I don't think I'd want to ride in ANY vehicle with "doom" in the name.

        ThunderDoom or X11X? I'll take the second flight, please.

    • How about Little Joe, Redstone, Thor, Juno, Minotaur, Pegasus, Taurus, Vanguard, or Ariane?

      • by rmccoy ( 318169 )

        "'You name the satellites after gods?' he asked.
        Shah shuffled uncomfortably but Sirsikar beamed at Baedecker. 'Of course!' Recruited while Mercury flew, trained during Gemini, blooded in Apollo, Baedecker turned his eyes back to the steel symmetry of the huge antenna.
        'So did we,' he said."

        --Phases of Gravity by Dan Simmons

    • Yes, meaningless letters and numbers are way cooler. My mistake. If I have a daughter, I'll name her ZX-32, not something stupid like Jennifer or Lizzy.

      • Re:Names... (Score:5, Funny)

        by FatLittleMonkey ( 1341387 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @03:42PM (#38906397)

        Oh don't be stupid. ZX-32 is a boys name, she'll be teased.

      • by dpilot ( 134227 )

        I grew up in Akron, Ohio, where one of the local heros was Art Arfons. He raced jet cars on the Bonnieville Salt Flats, and several times held the world land speed record. He may have eventually raced jets, but his earlier cars used aircraft piston engines.

        He named is daughter "Allison" after an aircraft engine maker that he liked, and presumably because he thought it an acceptable girls name. I believe she goes by the name "Dusty", but have no idea if was because she didn't like "Allison", or some other

        • He named is daughter "Allison" after an aircraft engine maker that he liked

          Said company is named after its founder, James Allison.

    • Can we go back to decent rocket names?

      You mean like Saturn, Mercury, Atlas, and Titan? I agree we need more awesome names like that.

      I personally really like the names of the Falcon rockets with the Kestrel and Merlin engines -- two types of falcon, you see.

      How does Draco not fit in?

      And when you make something that's like the thing with the cool name, but way above it, "Super" is often applied.

      When Boeing made a new long-range bomber to follow on the B-17 Flying Fortress, they called it the Superfortress. Super [wikipedia.org] actually seems a pretty popular

      • And when you make something that's like the thing with the cool name, but way above it, "Super" is often applied.

        Meh. I'll wait for the SuperDuperDraco.

        • Dude! SuperDuperDraco is a looooong way off. Duper technology isn't even out of university research labs yet!

    • The capsule is named dragon. The thrusters are called draco (as in latin for dragon). These are upgraded versions of the dracos. And this is an engine, not a rocket. Finally, just because the military uses letter/number combos, is no reason why a private company must.
  • by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @02:52PM (#38905433)

    It's really interesting that if you look at the arguably real shot [gizmag.com] of the test firing, it seems to look almost like a rendering from a game! It probably means that fire/smoke rendering in games is getting good, or perhaps nature is just recently slacking in presenting itself to us :)

    • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @03:49PM (#38906487) Homepage

      The physics of shock diamonds [vt.edu] is well understood. If you can model the physics, you can show it on a computer screen. Turns out it's fairly easy and doesn't require a lot of computer horsepower.

      • by tibit ( 1762298 )

        The way I understand it: shock diamond is merely a result you get when you do appropriate solutions to the set of equations that model gas flow. It's like saying that since the Bernoulli effect is well understood, you can easily render, say, the velocity field in a flow that goes into and out of the gap between two pieces of paper. I wasn't even talking about shock diamonds, but about pretty much everything else: the variations in optical density of the smoke are really strikingly similar, at the edge of th

    • Reminds me of the video of a methane engine being tested. Same "shock diamonds" evident in the thrust.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dumolLDfWw4 [youtube.com]
  • Shock diamonds (Score:2, Offtopic)

    by DCFusor ( 1763438 )
    Did anyone notice more than usual? Wow. Maybe I should have tried for the more expensive Tesla instead of my more versatile Volt. Chevy makes great cars, but ain't doing much for my "want space" jones.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    No way you can win now Harry! Best hide, because SuperDraco is out to get you!

  • Anyone else see this as bad? I mean I'm all for space innovation, but the further other companies get into ultra expensive areas the less likely we'll ever see competition or good prices. SpaceX will turn into a monopoly that will have no competition. Not only that, but our government will no longer be able to take over such a role as is with ISPs in the US. People will argue it's socialism, that it'll put people out of jobs, and it's un-american like. Essentially this is giving birth to a corporation that
    • SpaceX is doing everything they are doing for a tiny fraction of the money NASA squanders. In particular NASA spent billions on Ares 1, it was a horrible design, they wasted years on it, they managed one faked suborbital launch before the program was wisely killed.

      SpaceX isn't NASA's problem, NASA's hopeless bureaucracy is their problem. SpaceX is just a long overdue solution, to get America innovating in space exploration again after 30 years of disturbing decay caused by NASA's stagnant bureaucracy and

May all your PUSHes be POPped.