OK

And while she may not (quite yet) know how to use them, they do look all right.

Here are the lastest photos tweeted by Elon Musk of the Falcon 9v1.1 rocket. It's the long narrow triangle at the base that we're interested in: that is the very first landing leg ever installed in a Falcon 9v1.1 rocket.

First landing leg installed on Falcon 9v1.1 rocket.
Follow below the orange puff of booster smoke for more.

Falcon 9 v1.1 with three of four landing legs installed.
Last September, during the first ever launch of a Falcon 9v1.1 -- the larger, bigger-engined and improved version of the Falcon 9 -- SpaceX Corporation did something rather extraordinary: after the first stage separated from the second stage, instead of just letting the first stage fall into the ocean, as has happened on every other orbital launch since the beginning of the space age, SpaceX re-started three of the nine engines (with fuel deliberately saved in the stage) and slowed the stage down from hypersonic to subsonic speeds, in a controlled manner.

They then allowed the stage to fall, and re-ignited one of the first stage engines again before impact, attempting to slow the stage down enough for what could someday be a controlled landing. That second restart wasn't quite as successful: the engine started, but it burned out much sooner than expected. It turned out that the stage was rotating, and centrifugal force kept fuel from entering the fuel lines properly.

Since then, Falcon 9v1.1 has flown twice more on commercial launches, and next month, for the first time, the improved rocket will deliver a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station. During that launch, SpaceX will take another step on the road to a fully recoverable first stage. Once again they will re-ignite the first stage after separation, slow the stage to subsonic speeds, and see if they can control the stage all the way down.

But this time, with the landing legs installed at the bottom of the first stage, they expect that deployment of those legs will slow any rotation in the stage, like a figure skater slowing a spin by extending her arms. In the photo above, the same Falcon 9v1.1 has three of her four legs installed.

During the upcoming launch, SpaceX won't actually attempt to land the first stage; at this point, they're just trying to see if they can control the descent more precisely than they did the last time. Given their track record of unexpected successes so far, I'm betting they can.

But don't be surprised if, sometime this year, we see a Falcon 9v1.1 first stage return to its launch pad and land on those beautiful legs after boosting a satellite into orbit.

Why this is important

The Falcon 9v1.1 has a total of ten Merlin engines: nine in the first stage and one in the second stage. Most of the current high cost of a rocket launch is because the entire rocket is thrown away after one use. So you end up having to rebuild a new rocket from scratch for every trip.

Further, most of the cost of the rocket is in the engines (which are complicated and expensive) and not much in the fuel tank (which is simple and cheap).

So if SpaceX is successful in recovering a first stage, along with 9 of the 10 Merlin engines, the cost of getting to space will drop enormously. It's too soon to say how much it will drop, but less than half the current price (or less) should be easily within range. And SpaceX is already the lowest-cost launch provider in the world.

Essentially, if they can make this thing work, they will be swamped with launch orders, and other launch companies (and nations) will be scrambling to catch up. The price of getting to space will plummet. And we may at last become a species that is routinely spacefaring.

h/t: Innerspace.net

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