Last night, SpaceX unveiled its next generation spacecraft, the Dragon V2, which will be the company's first to carry men into space. The unveiling was elegant and dramatic, and left a lot of questions unanswered.
The scene looked like a late night talk show with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk acting as host. He walked out before a cheering crowd onto an all-white stage and stood in front of a tall white sheet hiding the spacecraft for the big reveal.
Overhead hung the first Dragon to fly in space, showing the charred marks of its return through the Earth’s atmosphere. Musk took the audience and the 30, 000 or so viewers watching the livestream through the main features of the Dragon V1, the spacecraft we’ve seen fly to the International Space Station four times.
Musk began the event by highlighting some of the features of the Dragon V1, focusing on its landing system. Like the Apollo-era spacecraft, the Dragon has always used parachutes to slow its descent to a splashdown landing in the Pacific Ocean. The spacecraft was, said Musk, an excellent proof-of-concept vehicle.
But the time for proof-of-concept spacecraft is over, he said. It’s time for a true 21st century spacecraft, and the curtain fell to reveal the V2.
The biggest change from the Dragon V1 to the V2, aside from its man-rated life support system that can carry up to seven astronauts, is its landing system. Musk claims the Dragon V2 will be able land propulsively almost anywhere on Earth—or another planet—with the precision of a helicopter. As described, the V2 will be able to land gently under its own thruster power, much like spacecraft of 70s sci-fi.
The whole event, if you'd like to kick back and enjoy the big reveal.
During the descent, when the spacecraft if a few miles above the ground, test engines will check the massive Super Draco thrusters, a larger version of the thrusters the Dragon uses to maneuver in orbit. If the engines detect any problems, the landing thrusters wont fire; parachutes will deploy and the spacecraft will default to a splashdown landing instead. If there aren’t any problems, the thrusters will fire. They’re mounted in pairs to provide redundancy in the final landing stages, so one of a pair fails, its mate will pick up the slack and fire with more power.
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