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SpaceX developing SuperDraco engine for surface landings

Ben Gilland
May 19, 2012, 23:00 UTC

Sen—SpaceX's mission this week to the space station represents just the start of the company's ambitions which include putting a man on Mars by 2020.

But before SpaceX reaches for Mars, their more immediate ambition is create a space launch system that is completely reusable.

Integral to the company’s resuable ambitions (and future interplanetary aspirations) is a powerful new engine currently under development, the SuperDraco, which enable the capsule to land on solid ground rather than dropping into the ocean.

For Dragon's up and coming flight to the space station, now scheduled to launch May 22, Dragon will be powered by SpaceX’s previous-generation engine, the Draco. The Draco thrusters generate 90 lbs of thrust and Dragon will use 18 of them to provide the craft with its exceptional in-orbit manoeuverability.

But SpaceX are hoping that future missions will powered by eight SuperDraco thrusters and be capable of carrying up to seven astronauts.

The SuperDraco can generate an impressive 15,000 lbs of thrust (120,000 lbs altogether) – not enough to take off from Earth – but enough to allow the craft to navigate to Mars, land, take off again and then return to Earth and perform a powered landing. For comparison, the Apollo Lunar Module’s ascent engine created 3,500 lbs of thrust.

SuperDraco rocket test

SpaceX has successfully performed a full-duration, full-thrust firing tests of a SuperDraco prototype at their Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

SuperDraco is unique is several ways. Instead of solid fuel, it uses modified kerosene, which is not only cheaper but will enable the engines to shut off by astronauts in case of an emergency – allowing a launch to be aborted at any time – a huge advantage over the solid boosters that, once lit, cannot be switched off.

"SuperDraco engines represent the best of cutting edge technology," explained SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

"These engines will power a revolutionary launch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy."

Their design also means that the engines can be restarted multiple times and be used repeatedly, meaning they wouldn’t have to be completely stripped and re-serviced after every launch – meaning the craft can land and return space with the sort of speed the Space Shuttle could only aspire to.

The company is still some way off building a spacecraft that can take off and navigate its way back to a launch pad under its own power, but SuperDraco is a step in the right direction.