NASA films fascinating SpaceX Falcon 9 reentry, paving way for Mars missions

April 9, 2016 – 07:05 am

Thermal falconAs NASA eyes future missions to Mars, it needs to accumulate data on how large-payload rockets behave in atmospheric reentry conditions. A recent collaboration between NASA and SpaceX allowed the space agency to capture some unique data on the reentry of a large rocket under Mars-like conditions in the upper atmosphere. Thermal video of the event is not only full of useful scientific data, it’s cool to watch.

The video follows the path of the Falcon 9 first stage, which is the largest section of the rocket. It’s what launches the payload from the launch pad and takes it most of the way into orbit. After the second stage separates to complete the job, the first stage is either discarded, or recovered. Perfecting a method of landing and recovering the first stage is what SpaceX is working on right now (the Falcon 9R).

The Falcon 9 is a perfect vehicle to provide this sort of reentry data because its first stage is capable of powered descent. Specifically, part of the return procedure is firing the rocket engines in retrograde, or in the direction of travel. NASA calls this supersonic retro-propulsion. This is the part of landing where the rocket slows its descent, and would be an important component of future Mars missions, both manned and unmanned.

SpaceXIf you look at the way the Curiosity rover was landed on Mars, you start to see the problem. It was too heavy for parachutes, as the Martian atmosphere is very thin. It was also too massive for the controlled crash-landings used to get smaller rovers like Spirit and Opportunity to the surface. If you need to get a large payload onto the surface of Mars, you need a way to slow the descent through the use of supersonic retro-propulsion. Curiosity had its rocket-powered sky crane, and that worked well enough, but it won’t work for a craft that’s very much heavier. You’d need something much more similar to the Falcon 9.

To capture the data from this reentry, NASA outfitted two planes with high-resolution thermal imaging cameras and got them in the air about 50 miles from the Falcon 9’s projected path. A NASA WB-57, a twin jet engine high-altitude research aircraft was equipped with a long-range optical infrared camera system capable of full-motion video. The other craft was a Navy NP-3D Orion positioned along a different part of the flight path with a similar infrared optical camera system.

Even without all the associated data points about heat levels and gas plumes, the video of the Falcon 9’s descent is fascinating to watch. The change from a tiny point of light to blazing fireball illustrates how much energy it takes to bleed off all that speed from reentry.


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  • avatar How can you clean and check auto choke on 3.9 falcon motor?
    • start car then spray carby cleaner around the top of the carby and down into the jets while holding the throttle to about 3000 rpm the revs will die a bit when u do this so keep holding the throttle open until revs pick back up if the choke is working properly it should be fully open at operating temp