What Happens to a Rocket Booster After Launch? Does it Become Space Junk?

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Rocket Booster

A rocket booster is a component that works together with rocket’s primary engines at lift-off so that spacecraft can get into space. It separates from the main rocket after a vertical flight of about 24 miles, says NASA. After taking off from NASA’s space center, a typical rocket booster returns to Earth by parachuting and eventually splashing down in the ocean. As solid boosters float because they have been designed for this purpose, it is common to have ships retrieving and bringing them back to shore. Eventually, expert engineers work on repairing them. This way, no material gets to be wasted.

What happens to rocket boosters that don’t fall into the ocean?

However, not every rocket booster splashes down into the sea after takeoff and rocket booster separation maneuver, claims CBC. A Chinese launcher that went wild back in 2021 was predicted to plummet into space, but nobody knew where exactly it would land. However, as it was falling through our planet’s upper atmosphere, a big part of it was destined to disintegrate. Given a huge amount of water coverage across Earth, a substantial chunk of its remnants was likely to fall into the ocean.

Despite this, the Chinese rocket speed booster became space debris and continues to represent a danger to life as we know it down here on Earth. Debris that has already reached space may sometimes hit other objects in orbit. It all depends on whether a rocket booster breaks off. Astronauts and spacecraft might be in great danger because of this. Several space organizations supposedly prioritize safe disposing of space debris, although as of publishing, nothing concrete has been proven in this direction.

Can a rocket booster be used more than once?

Orbital Today is sure that reusable boosters, invented by commercial rocket companies, are very important when it comes to preventing the issue of space debris. SpaceX was the first to develop rocket boosters that return and get repaired for reuse. Elon Musk’s company retrieves its booster either from landing pads or from the sea. Only upper stages of SpaceX rocket engines don’t get to be recovered.

However, back in March 2021, there was a report of a dazzling light up in the sky around southern British Columbia. This light may have been caused by a second stage burning after a SpaceX rocket booster launch. There were no reports of debris falling back to Earth exist, but we can still assume there was no rocket booster landing. This indicates an engine wasn’t recovered and can no longer be reused by SpaceX.

What happens to a rocket booster after separation?

Reusing space flight gear is essential for achieving cost-effective space launches, which makes every launch more affordable and allows private companies to accommodate more clients. Used stages are taken apart, repaired, and refilled with solid propellant for further use. This is not only helpful for our planet’s environment, but it also makes a difference in an important mission of cleaning the Earth’s orbit from space debris.

Rocket boosters running on solid fuel pioneered space travel, and some launchers use this tech up to this day. Orbiters will reach a speed of 3,512 miles per hour, thanks to such rockets. Momentum keeps them moving for 70 seconds after separation. Rocket boosters falling away and back to Earth usually takes place after an ascent to 38.6 nautical miles. Each booster’s nose cap is launched at a 2.5 nautical mile height.

How are rocket boosters retrieved?

Rocket Booster

About 7 minutes after most rocket launches, boosters splash down in the ocean. Splashdown location is 6 by 9 nautical miles square and around 140 nautical miles away from a rocket’s launch pad. At splashdown, recovery must be positioned around 8 to 10 nautical miles away. When boosters have hit the water, ships move into location, accelerating at around 15 knots speed. It takes just one cargo ship to retrieve a standard rocket booster.

Recovery crews first evaluate the flight gear visually. The first things taken on board are main parachutes and pilot chutes. Three out of four ship’s deck reels are being coiled with shroud lines. When the frustum is about 50 feet behind the ship, a drogue parachute linked to it is looped onto the fourth reel. The ship’s deck crane and power block are then used to raise the frustum out of the sea. Then, most boosters are recovered with the help of experienced divers and an Enhanced Diver-Operated Plug (EDOP).

Those are some examples of how space organizations and private companies retrieve their stages after launch. However, new, even more affordable technologies are developed as we speak, so, soon enough, we may see more solutions to make space launches more accessible.

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About the Author: John Watson