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Space Science

SpaceX's Falcon 9 Crashes Into Droneship ( 130

SpaceX failed to successfully land its Falcon 9 on a drone ship at sea on Wednesday. Prior to today's crash, the company was able to conduct three successful experimental landing of its used rocket in a row. SpaceX founder Elon Musk noted that the booster rocket had a RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly, he explained) on droneship. From a CBS News report: It was the California rocket company's fifth unsuccessful drone-ship landing after three straight successes, one in April and two in May. Including a successful landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station last December, SpaceX's recovery record now stands at four successes in nine attempts. But the landing attempt was a strictly secondary objective. The mission's primary goal, the launch of two powerful all-electric communications satellites, was a complete success and regardless of the loss of the first stage, company engineers expected to collect valuable data as they continue their push to make such landings routine.
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SpaceX's Falcon 9 Crashes Into Droneship

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  • RUD FUD (Score:5, Informative)

    by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @12:49PM (#52322939) Homepage

    I like that....

    This is still lots better than what NASA is doing. Stressing the technology. Doing new things.

    Going ka boom. Everybody needs an earth shattering kaboom now and again. I just wish they'd have audio on the drone ship.

    • Re:RUD FUD (Score:5, Informative)

      by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @01:12PM (#52323075)

      This is still lots better than what NASA is doing. Stressing the technology. Doing new things.

      NASA's funding depends on pleasing politicians. So they need to be overly cautious and avoid pushing tech till it breaks, even if we would learn more that way. SpaceX's investors have a longer attention span than voters. In may seem that caution is prudent, but excessive caution can be very expensive in terms of lost opportunities. So far, SpaceX has spent less than 2% of NASA's annual budget.

      • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @01:37PM (#52323269)

        NASA's funding depends on pleasing politicians. So they need to be overly cautious and avoid pushing tech till it breaks, even if we would learn more that way.

        I think that philosophy is just timidity at its worst. NASA could go and push the envelope and blow some stuff up. They've done it before. The problem is that they lack an administrator with the cojones to stand in front of congress and explain why blowing up the occasional rocket is a good thing.

        SpaceX's investors have a longer attention span than voters.

        Voters don't have much say in the funding of NASA. In fact very few of them really give much of a shit about NASA at all and NASA hasn't given them much of a reason to give a shit. SpaceX has a CEO who is also a substantial shareholder (reportedly at least 25%) and controls the company which has a LOT to do with the laser focus and long term outlook.

        • Well, it's also kind of difficult when politicians are writing their funding bill with "NASA gets X dollars, as long as they spend it working with company Y, NASA gets A dollars, as long as they spend it doing B." It's having complete morons micromanage NASA.

          It is not surprising NASA doesn't do stuff like SpaceX does.

          • by tsotha ( 720379 )

            Yeah, this is NASA's biggest problem. Congress sees NASA as just another porkbarrel project. That's why there are ten different "Space Excellence Centers". That's why solid rockets for the space shuttle were built in Utah, which meant they had to be segmented (and have o-rings that could fail) so they could be shipped by train. That's why launches are in Florida but mission control is in Texas. You would never willingly run an operation like that.

            It's not just NASA either - defense contractors have be

            • by torkus ( 1133985 )

              And at that point SpaceX balances the $ income vs. cost (in $ and complexity and risk) of distributing their operations according to a buyers request. It's incredibly common for large purchasers to put specific terms and requirements around doing business with them. This would be no different.

              The advantage of NOT being a government line item is they can say no to things that go beyond their acceptible operational risk. In reality large companies and large $ contracts are very rarely ever black and white o

        • You make very valid points, but there is an issue that I think you are missing. All of what you say is basically true, except the part where you say voters don't have much of a say in NASA funding. they actually do, even if it is indirect. They elect the politicians that control policy, and theoretically this is a good thing. But our democracy is corrupted by special interests, so the voters don't don't always get what they voted for, while special interest groups get often get exactly what they paid fo

        • NASA could go and push the envelope and blow some stuff up.

          Nasa can't develop a re-usable rocket program by themselves, they need Congress to give them permission and the money. Except Congress doesn't want reusable, it wants expendable so there are more jobs rebuilding rockets.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        SpaceX made 9 launches plus development and early testing with less than USD 340M? That's quite impressive.

    • This completely misunderstands NASA's role. NASA is a space research agency, not a rocket company or a launch vendor. As others have said, NASA being highly supportive of SpaceX means that what SpaceX is doing and what NASA is doing ARE THE SAME THING. NASA runs space missions. If they choose an innovative launch vendor like SpaceX, then they are doing exactly what you want them to. The fact that congress is so pork-oriented that a huge fraction of NASA's budget is mandated to pay for another launch sy
  • by BenJeremy ( 181303 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @12:49PM (#52322943)

    ...the launch of two powerful all-electric communications satellites

    I'm glad we are finally getting past the era of internal combustion and the earlier coal-fired satellites!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @12:57PM (#52323009)

      Gotta push the memes while they're hot. Gluten free water. Asbestos free turkey. Non radioactive microwave oven.

      • by Bengie ( 1121981 )
        Got you beat. I saw "Gluten-free low-sodium table salt" at the store.
        • by calque ( 4296327 )

          Got you beat. I saw "Gluten-free low-sodium table salt" at the store.

          I believe silicon dioxide is used as an additive to salt - add enough and it would be "low sodium".

        • Got you beat. I saw "Gluten-free low-sodium table salt" at the store.

          Yes, but even the "low sodium" part is true as these table salts usually substitute potassium chloride for the more common sodium chloride. So they really are both "table salt" and low sodium.

          That large concentrations of potassium aren't necessarily good for you either is another matter, but getting more is probably a good idea as most people don't get enough potassium compared to sodium.

    • by Burdell ( 228580 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @12:58PM (#52323021)

      The majority of satellites use chemical rockets for orbit changes and station keeping. When the relatively small amount of propellant is used up, so is the satellite (even if it is otherwise still functional). Using ion propulsion instead could increase the life of satellites, which reduces costs.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @01:11PM (#52323069)

        ion propulsion is NOT "all electric". Still need some particles to ionize.

      • by Ormy ( 1430821 )
        What was wrong with RTGs?
        • by suutar ( 1860506 )

          at a guess, difficulty getting more plutonium and fear of a launch accident spreading plutonium around.

        • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @01:55PM (#52323401)
          I am for nuclear power, but RTGs are:
          • Rare. The isotopes whose properties match the use criteria [] are mostly generated in breeder reactors or reactors specialized for generating medical isotopes, or as a byproduct of weapons grade plutonium production [].
          • Expensive. Due to protests over their use, any launch with a RTG aboard undergoes extra scrutiny and requires additional studies before approval. You also need to have extra security to protect the launch site and payload from protesters.
          • Produce energy in the form of heat. This is good far from the sun where you need heat to keep your electronics from freezing. But closer to the sun you have the opposite problem, and you have to work hard to expel heat from the satellite []. So closer to the sun, an energy source not based on heat is preferable.
          • Dangerous. I don't mean they'll burn up on re-entry and spread plutonium all over the atmosphere. The canisters which contain the radioactive materials have demonstrated they will survive re-entry intact in the event of a launch mishap or satellite de-orbit. The problem is after they re-enter, they're a powerful radioactive source in a cannister lost in some random location where anyone could potentially find it. That is not a good combination []. Responsible use of RTGs near the Earth means doing a controlled de-orbit of the satellite (not always possible) so RTG lands in the deep ocean, or conducting an expensive search and recovery operation afterwards to find the RTG before thieves do [].

          Save the RTGs for the deep-space missions. There's plenty of solar energy in Earth orbit to power satellites (solar flux is nearly 2x what it is on the Earth's surface without an atmosphere to scatter and absorb sunlight, and the high launch costs mean you can afford the expensive high-efficiency panels). Batteries (to power the satellite during the 45 minutes it's in the Earth's shadow) can operate for a decade or more, which is about the time you start thinking of replacing the satellite anyway due to its technology being outdated.

          • I thought communications satellites were pushed outward into a graveyard orbit when they were at end of life, rather than de-orbitted.
            • by torkus ( 1133985 )

              Deorbiting (diving into the gravity well) is easier. The atmostphere and gravity do most of the work for you whereas climbing to a higher orbit you're doing all the work. As far as I know, anything in LEO will decay and re-enter all on it's own given some time and a lack of boosting to restore orbit. This (running out of fuel) is what defines EOL for sats.

        • Who said there was (aside from reentry concerns)? But RTGs only provide electricity, you still need something to provide thrust.

          Traditionally thrust has been supplied by internal-combustion chemical rocket engines, but electrically powered ion drives are starting to catch on - they still rely on consumable reaction mass, but accelerate it to much higher speeds than chemical rocket exhaust, and so can get far more delta-V from the same amount of reaction mass.

          The other option is magnetic-drive, having the s

          • by dpilot ( 134227 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @03:31PM (#52324167) Homepage Journal

            My impression is that satellites have been using this as part of their attitude control for quite some time. More specifically, they have gyros that they use to change the attitude. Periodically the gyro gets near the limits of what they can do. When that happens, they reset the gyros back to a neutral setting, and offset that with a matching torque against the Earth's magnetic field so the attitude remains constant.

            The gyros can move the satellite faster and more easily than the magnetic torquing system, so that's what's used for normal attitude control.

            • That sounds about right, other than resetting with the Earth's magnetic field - I suspect that would require larger currents and longer moment arms than most satellites are designed for, and maneuvering thrusters are used instead.

              Because you still need maneuvering thrusters. Gyros let you make "reactionless" changes to orientation, but to correct for the inevitable perturbations in your orbital path, conservation of momentum demands that you push against something outside the satellite itself to change spe

      • by ClayJar ( 126217 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @01:17PM (#52323117) Homepage

        Also, chemical propellant is "heavy", meaning it takes much more mass to get an equivalent kick. If you want real words, the Isp (specific impulse) is lower for chemical propellant engines than for ion engines. With all electric satellites, you can carry much less propellant, meaning you can have a satellite of comparable capability in much less mass. In the case of these two satellites, the Boeing BSS-702SP platform they're built on means you can fit two on a "normal" GTO launch. That basically halves your launch costs.

        The tradeoffs are that while all electric propulsion is very "fuel efficient", the thrust of ion engines is a very small fraction of that of the more conventional chemical propellant engines, so instead of taking days to settle in to your final orbit, it can take weeks of slow orbit raising. This is a "cost" that may or may not be worth the trade. Also, since the 702SP satellites are launched in pairs, a launch failure could take out two birds with one... rocket. To give a bit of insurance against this, Eutelsat and ABS chose to split two rockets. They'd each fly one satellite per launch, meaning they only risked one of their two each flight in case of a Very Bad Day.

        • by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @02:36PM (#52323689) Homepage

          Also, chemical propellant is "heavy", meaning it takes much more mass to get an equivalent kick. If you want real words, the Isp (specific impulse) is lower for chemical propellant engines than for ion engines. With all electric satellites, you can carry much less propellant, meaning you can have a satellite of comparable capability in much less mass.

          Ion propulsion is heavy too. While the ISP is very impressive - ISP isn't everything, except to armchair engineers. T/W matters too, and for electric T/W isn't all that impressive... and unlike chemical engines, there's very little benefit gained as fuel is exausted as the mass of the fuel is such a small fraction of total powerplant mass. There's a reason why electric propulsion has only found niche applications.

          In the case of these two satellites, the Boeing BSS-702SP platform they're built on means you can fit two on a "normal" GTO launch. That basically halves your launch costs.

          At the cost of requiring four to six months (as opposed to four to six days) for the satellite to reach it's station on orbit. (TANSTAAFL.) It's also worth noting that this is only possible because during orbital transfer, the communications systems that are the reason for the satellites existence are turned off - making their substantial power supply available for the electric engines.

          • by Bengie ( 1121981 )
            Since delta-v scales with the log of the mass of fuel and linearly with the exhaust velocity, it doesn't take much to beat chemical thrust. Very low thrust, but very high delta-v.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Technically earlier satellites do in fact use internal combustion engines, since a rocket motor (including the chemical thrusters used for satellite manoeuvring) is classed as an internal combustion engine. Coal, I'm not so sure about as far as satellites are concerned. However hybrid rocket motors using coal as the solid fuel have been tested in the past. A quick search reveals for example this article [], if you scroll down to "Pioneers", we have

      "In Germany from 1937-1939, I.G. Farben ran tests using coal an

      • by Anonymous Coward

        But the real future is in wind powered rockets and satellite propulsion systems. Musk is so behind the times.

    • I can't wait for the age of steampunk satellites.
    • Well, we're essentially using steam powered, and internal combustion powered rockets to launch them.
    • As if a wind-up satellite wouldn't suffice.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The KSP community has been using the term RUDE (Rapid Unplanned Disassembly Event). Also lithobreaking is used as a term for crashing.

  • Telemetry (Score:5, Informative)

    by James P Lynch ( 2930801 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @12:58PM (#52323011)

    Musk tweeted:
    "Looks like thrust was low on 1 of 3 landing engines. High g landings v sensitive to all engines operating at max."
    "Upgrades underway to enable rocket to compensate for a thrust shortfall on one of the three landing engines. Probably get there end of year."

    Landing video froze at the last moment but it looked like a bulls-eye landing. There was flame climbing up the side of the stage. Telemetry should be helpful in making improvements.

    • So basically you need to have enough margin designed into the engines that 2 out of 3 can still compensate for loss of thrust from 1, assuming there's also enough thrust available from attitude jets to stabilize? Does the engine design have that margin already?
      • No, that's why he says that the upgraded engines will have it.

        Also it is not just about having the margin it is about having the ability to react fast enough - the landing burns are very short and you only get one chance (and too much thrust will bounce which ain't helpful either).

      • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @02:15PM (#52323555) Homepage Journal

        Does the engine design have that margin already?

        FWIW, the Falcon 9 heavy will have nine of these engines. 8/9 seems easier than 2/3 (and of course 7/9 is easier on the eyes).

        • Re:Telemetry (Score:5, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @02:44PM (#52323749)

          Falcon 9 has 9 of those engines. they only use 1 to 3 of them for landing depending on the launch profile, using all 9 of them would make the rocket go back up instead of landing (technically if they left 1 of them turned on long enough it would make the rocket go back up, part of what makes landing a falcon so challenging compared to the blue origin's rocket)
          Falcon heavy will have 9 on each core, with 3 cores, total of 27 of engines, but each core will have to land independently. So for the landing, not much actually changes, other than two of them happening at the same time (and one slightly later if they try to recover the center core, probably only going to be feasible on very heavy launches to LEO)

          • The number of engines they use depend on the mission. I believe on the last webcast they said something like 1-3-1 for a GTO mission. So they first start one, then add two more for the 12g deceleration, then turn those two back off and land with just the center engine to have more precision.

            The engines can throttle between 45% and 100%, and for a nearly empty rocket a single engine at 45% is already more than 1g. That indeed makes it a lot more challenging than landing the blue origin rockets which are a lo

        • by Anonymous Coward

          F9 Heavy lands as 3 separate F9s. -FYI

      • My understand of what makes these sorts of landings complex is that because the rocket is so light having expended all of its fuel, the engines can't throttle down low enough to not overcome gravity by a large margin. As such, it's basically falling at terminal velocity until the last few seconds when the engines cut in just long enough to cancel out the downwards velocity. Since the throttles are at minimum, I would suspect there's plenty of thrust available to do it with even just a single engine (assumin
        • That's for single-engine landings, when they have more than a trivial amount of fuel left and can afford the time to land gently. That really only works for launches to low earth orbit (LEO).

          Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) or Super-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) launches are another matter entirely. Those use very nearly all the first stage's fuel, and go extremely fast. The rocket doesn't have enough fuel to "boost back" the way it does for LEO landings, so the droneship needs to be much further out to sea. M

    • I wonder how they're going to "compensate" for a thrust shortfall on one engine. They start those three engines pretty much at the last possible moment. Once they've detected a thrust shortfall, that platform is getting pretty close. So what are they going to do? Add two other engines? Can they start them that quickly? They don't have much fuel to work with either.

      • by ColaMan ( 37550 )

        Possibly run the other engines up over 100%.

        They're used for a few minutes at 100% thrust and in reality they should be able to punch out at least 20% more than that for a few seconds.
        If the alternative is 'ka-boom', I'd probably do that.

        • That would work if the center engine failed. But if it's one of the outers, will it have enough thrust vectoring to compensate for the imbalance?

  • by Bing Tsher E ( 943915 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @01:19PM (#52323133) Journal

    More important than a successful landing is a successful second takeoff of the recovered Falcon 9 stage. Without that this is just scrap metal recovery.

    So we will need to wait and see.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @01:20PM (#52323143)

    Mr. Musk "get's it". His engineering team is working on the edge of what can be done and failures are going to happen (they're landing a frigging rocket on a ship... backwards). He can either say "we failed" or he can say we had an "RUD". It means the same thing and everyone knows it but it deflects from the technical team somewhat and is gentle signal to the team that their heads aren't on the block (at least yet). It's a good way to lead. Just hope he never uses the world "fail"... because he does have that whole evil genius vibe going.

  • RUD = rapid unscheduled disassembly

    So, a rocket experiences RUD, while a missile experiences RSD?

    • by tsotha ( 720379 )
      A missile or the first stage of a normal launch. Even for Falcon 9 launches if the customer needs every last m/sec of dV the first stage is a write-off.
  • Falcon 9 Landen, then exploded. That article is too negative. SpaceX managed to deploy 2 satellite into 2 different orbits, successfully!!!!

  • Consider the facts (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Skythe ( 921438 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2016 @07:31PM (#52325709)
    I'm sure I am preaching to the crowd here, but the crash should be considered in light of the following facts:
    - SpaceX customers still pay for the entire rocket, there is no discount applied yet
    - All other competing rockets do not have this capability and burn up on re-entry
    - Every landing attempt provides new and unique data that can be used for continuous improvement
    - The primary mission (what they are being paid for) was still accomplished
  • "Of Course I Still Love You", Falcon 9. But it got kinda painful there at the end.

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