Reusable rockets could fly back to their launch sites with wings

Reusable launch vehicles have been a boon to the commercial space industry. By salvaging and refurbishing rocket first stages, launch service providers have dramatically reduced the cost of sending payloads and even crew into space. In addition to first stage boosters, there are efforts to make rockets fully reusable, from second stages to payload fairings. There are currently multiple strategies for booster recovery, including mid-air recovery using helicopters and nets. However, the preferred method is for the boosters to return to a landing pad under their own power (the boost-back and landing maneuver).

This strategy requires additional rocket fuel for the booster to land again, which comes at the cost of payload mass and performance for the ascent mission. Alternatively, researchers at the National Office Of Aerospace Studies And Research (ONERA) are proposing two new types of strategies that would allow boosters to return to their launch site. These are known as “glide-back” and “fly-back” architectures, both of which feature boosters with lift surfaces (fins and wings) that perform vertical take-off and horizontal landing (VTVL) maneuvers.

The research was led by Mathieu Balesdent, a senior research scientist in the Multidisciplinary Methods and Integrated Concepts Unit of the ONERA Department of Information Systems and Processing (DTIS). It was achieved by researchers from ONERA’s Department of Materials and Structures (DMAS), Department of Aerodynamics, Aeroelasticity, Acoustics (DAAA), and DTIS, with assistance provided by the Launchers Directorate of the National Center for Space Studies (CNES ). The document describing their proposal appeared in the journal Acta Astronautica.

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A Falcon 9 rocket taking off from Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX

In their paper, Balesdent and his colleagues describe how additional propellant can be saved and used for the Return To Launch Site (RTLS) mission through multidisciplinary design optimization techniques that incorporate space and aviation technologies into boosters. These include lift surfaces (fins, wings, etc.), air-breathing propulsion (turbojet engines), and other flight-proven methods. First, they identified two architectures that rely on some or all of these techniques, known as “glide-back” and “fly-back”.

The first configuration combines space and aeronautical technologies to recover the first stage. These include a streamlined nose, lift surfaces, gears, and corresponding power avionics, added to the initial stage configuration. After performing a vertical takeoff and ascent, the second stage launches while the first stage reignites some of its engines to make a powered landing (similar to SpaceX Falcon 9 AND Heavy rockets). The vehicle then performs an aerodynamic reentry and returns to the landing site, where it lands horizontally.

The second architecture completely avoids the use of rocket propellant and combines the previous aeronautical elements with different turbojets and their propulsion systems for the RTLS mission. After separating from the second stage, the first stage makes a ballistic, high-angle-of-attack atmospheric reentry. The nose-mounted turbojets are then ignited to cruise and land the vehicle horizontally. Balesdent and his colleagues also describe a “reusability kit” containing the components needed to adapt the first stage boosters for both flight configurations. As they state:

“These kits, consisting of the lifting surfaces, the nose (including the air-breathing propulsive system for the fly-back configuration) and additional subsystems (for examplelanding gears), can be mounted on the main core of the launcher to perform various reusable missions, and then removed and installed on another first stage if the current one is used for one last expendable mission.

The first stage of the New Shephard rocket returning to its landing pad. Credit: Blue Origin

These kits can be used multiple times and allow first stage boosters to be adapted for “glide back” and “return to flight” maneuvers, giving commercial launch providers the option to make their rockets salvageable or save additional propellant . Benefits include expanded range of recovery operations, the ability to launch heavier payloads, and (most importantly) more cost-effective launch services. This aligns with the primary goal of the commercial space industry (aka NewSpace), which is to reduce launch costs, enabling greater access to space, and the “commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO)”.

This study was a collaboration between the French space agency, the Center National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), and the French aerospace laboratory – the Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches Arospatiales (ONERA) – on reusable launch vehicles ( RLV).

Further reading: Acta Astronautica

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