Modular, reusable design is a design methodology that demands serious consideration. SpaceX have put the associated advantages to work with their Falcon family of spacecraft. The Falcon Heavy long-range heavy payload rocket, their latest effort, is built from existing Falcon models. Moreover, the Falcon rockets are engineered to land in a controlled manner, so that they can be reused for future missions. In their next mission, SpaceX will launch a Falcon - and land it - equipped with a reused engine. If successful, it will be another first for SpaceX, a name associated with pushing the limits of space exploration. What can we learn from their design to launch?
When I was a child I loved to play with Legos. You could build almost everything with them: skyscrapers, spaceships, rockets, cars, theme parks, etc. The beauty of Legos was that even the finished product was still a “part” that could be added on and extended. Once, when taking apart a fighter jet I built, I realized I could just turn the model into something else. Since Legos are entirely modular, there was nothing stopping me from this. Before long, my fighter jet had turned into a Space Shuttle.
Lego’s might be a children’s toy, but there’s nothing juvenile about a modular design approach. In fact, SpaceX applies this design methodology to great effect. Their current engineering goal is to create a series of scalable, reusable space vehicles capable of heavy payloads and long mission ranges. The Falcon family of rockets is the most visible of these efforts to create what you might call the “Lego” of spacecraft: a simplified and modular design. How does this work in practice?
Legos are more than just a toy. SpaceX is applying the same concepts in their reusable, modular rockets.
Falcon Heavy: Legos on Steroids
The Falcon Heavy is the most recent focus of development, and fully emblematic of the Lego approach. The design brief is ambitious: interplanetary mission ranges and a “super-heavy” payload exceeding 100,000 lbs. It features two “strap-on” style booster stages connected to a central core rocket, which is the older Falcon 9 vehicle. Each section, including the two-stage Falcon 9 core, uses a common body design with a standardized manufacturing approach. Aluminum alloys, along with effective welding techniques, are used to ensure high strength while simplifying the process steps for the rocket’s in-house construction. More so, each section of the Falcon Heavy uses the same set of nine “Merlin 1D” takeoff engines, flight navigation, and control computers. All told, this means that SpaceX can rapidly build the Falcon Heavy or other models using the same production approach. For example, building a Falcon Heavy from Falcon 9 spares whenever space missions call for it. Ideally, this culminates in the ultimate Lego strategy: constructing the Falcon Heavy from the boosters and core sections used on previous missions.
The Falcon Heavy rocket: Two booster sections either side strapped to a common core section, shared with other Falcon models.
Build Them Up, Break Them Down
It might seem like I glossed over an important fact: for a Falcon Heavy to be built out of past mission hardware, those “space Legos” would need to be recoverable, right? Of course, SpaceX set out to achieve exactly that. The Falcon 9 is engineered with a revolutionary landing system. On the return descent, the rocket rotates 180 degrees and fires its engines to slow the rate of fall. This allows it to reach the landing area in a controlled manner.
Once it nears the recovery site, the rocket deploys its landing gear and completes a vertical landing. In December of 2015, the Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket was the first model able to achieve this revolutionary method of recovery. When it launches, the Falcon Heavy will have the same landing system for both the main section and the strap-on boosters. This means that a Falcon 9 can be built for shorter missions and then upgraded to a Falcon Heavy when commercial demand calls for it. The era of the disposable spacecraft - perceived as a “cost of doing business” - is over.
SpaceX are building a family of rockets using common engines and fuselage sections. The falcon heavy is the most recent effort.
Falcon 9 Takes Off in a Historic Launch
Vertically landing a rocket is an outstanding accomplishment and a key milestone on the road to the Falcon Heavy’s success. That said, there’s more to it than just landing the rocket. The engines, structure, and control computers need to keep working for future missions. Your Legos didn’t lose their integrity when you took them apart and neither should the Falcon rockets, this is design to launch at its very best.
Thursday, March 30th, SpaceX is putting a Falcon 9 rocket to this ultimate test. As part of a routine satellite launching mission, this rocket will launch and land with a booster section that was recovered in April of 2016. While it has been refurbished in a four-month program, the booster section’s key components, including the engines, are directly carried over. If successful, this will be an unparalleled feat and a clear indication that modular rockets and their obvious economies are well within reach.
A modular approach to design has certainly done great things for SpaceX, but it can benefit PCB designers as well. Aside from the obvious benefits of saving time and money, it’s inefficient to research and design the same thing twice. That’s why Altium created Vault, a design package to go along with your PCB software, that lets you pull ECAD design data directly from suppliers and apply it on-demand to your latest project. However, this is more than pulling Legos out of a box. Vault creates a dynamic relationship with your projects and the parts within. Specifications, documentation, parts availability and even pricing data are updated live. Talk to the experts at Altium to find out how Vault can streamline the tedious aspects of your workflow and let you focus on creative PCB design so you can design to launch like falcon heavy.