Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Falcon 9 and Blue Origin Booster Landings:Compared and Contrasted

Obviously there is big excitement around the space community today as SpaceX has finally demonstrated a Falcon 9 booster landing during a flight to orbit mission. SpaceX is no stranger to landing boosters, but landing them successfully from an orbital launch has eluded them so far, with two attempts at barge landings turning in less than stellar results. Last night, however, they stuck the landing after lofting the second stage and its Orbcomm satellite payloads into orbit.

Now very technically, SpaceX is not the first company to stick a booster landing after a launch. Very technically, that honor belongs to Blue Origin, who landed their New Shephard booster after a sub-orbital launch on November 23, 2015. What Blue Origin did was pretty impressive. They managed to land a VTVL booster after it had returned from the edge of space (100.5km up), which isn't half bad, and their accomplishment makes sense in their plan for playing in the sub-orbital space tourism market, so kudos to Blue Origin. That said, the booster recovery of Blue Origin and the booster recovery of SpaceX aren't terribly comparable.

The SpaceX booster is about 45 meters long and dwarfs the New Shephard Booster. The New Shephard booster weighs in at about 40 tons, while the Falcon 9 booster starts off at about 460 tons, about an 11:1 weight ratio. New Shephard booster only has to drop back down to its launch site before firing engines. The Falcon 9 has to return to the launch site via a high speed u-turn from somewhere out in the Atlantic, so essentially the Falcon 9 booster has to fly sideways to it's landing location. So comparing the two boosters is a bit like comparing a Cessna to a 747.

A time lapsed photo of the Falcon 9 launch followed by the booster landing.