SpaceX hit a milestone in space exploration Sunday as it launched its most powerful rocket yet from California.
The unmanned nine-engine Falcon 9, which carried a small Canadian weather satellite called Cassiope, is an experiment in reusing rocket parts after they have fallen back to Earth. As the BBC reports:
"Normally, this initial segment of a rocket falls back to Earth after burning out and is destroyed. But the company is endeavouring to develop a system that would allow it to recover and recycle these stages, further reducing the cost of launching a Falcon vehicle. ...
"During Sunday's mission, three first-stage engines were commanded to reignite, to see if they could bring the rocket segment down through the atmosphere intact. A fourth engine was then ignited to try to slow the stage still further just before it touched the water."
A Falcon 9 launch currently has a $56.5 million price tag.
SpaceX's principal rival, Orbital Sciences, also had a good day Sunday: Its unmanned spacecraft docked at the International Space Station, where it will remain for a few weeks. It's unloading 1,500 pounds of supplies and will be filled with trash before "departing for a destructive re-entry" over the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, NASA is pursuing space-ready innovations using 3-D printing.
- NASA announced in May that it was pursuing food printing technology — reminiscent of Star Trek's replicator — as a way to feed astronauts during long exploration missions. According to a proposal, the yet-undeveloped 3-D printer will deliver starch, protein and fat, while an inkjet will add micronutrients and flavor. Not exactly fit for foodies, perhaps ... but at least there will be pizza.
- In July, NASA said that metal rocket parts created with a 3-D printer were just as good the traditional kinds — and 60 percent cheaper.
- The agency is already planning to send up a 3-D printer to create customized plastic parts for the International Space Station next year. The Associated Press reports that "the spools of plastic could eventually replace racks of extra instruments and hardware, although the upcoming mission is just a demonstration printing job."