Why SpaceX Lands Starship By Propulsion Not By Parachutes?

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Why SpaceX Lands Starship By Propulsion Not By Parachutes?: Have you ever wondered why SpaceX lands its rockets with propulsion—which is extremely difficult? Why doesn’t SpaceX land its rocket into the water using a parachute? Well, you’ll know in just a second.

From a physics point of view, the biggest challenge of returning to the first stage is not the landing part. The biggest challenge is to avoid re-entry into the atmosphereMusk compared it to hitting an empty Coke can with a hammer.

The terminal velocity of a rocket booster entering the Earth’s atmosphere is enormous. Parachutes can’t stop them. You can use a large airbag in addition to the parachute. This adds another 5% or so to the weight.

On paper, the use of parachutes to safely retrieve space hardware is simple. It requires no fuel, uses Earth’s dense atmosphere, and has a proven track record.

However, you have to consider that parachute, and for a piece of hardware the size of a Falcon 9 booster or Starship’s newly arriving booster—it will likely be the parachute, which takes up both mass and space, which is essentially what most Waste of flight and reduction in payload capacity.

A parachute landing would also require landing at sea. Saltwater wreaks havoc with spacecraft hardware. Since saltwater is extremely corrosive and slowing down by parachutes, landing at sea would destroy the complex parts of very expensive engines.

This greatly increases the cost of refurbishment, replacement, and repair if one wants to reuse it. Parachutes only provide drag relative to the velocity of the air they are moving, so they are not possible to drop down to zero velocity.

Even when maneuverable, they have only limited action and are still susceptible to unexpected aerodynamic turbulence. The equipment and materials we install for airdrops require significant preparation and additional weight and structure to support against damage from landing impact forces.

Propellant landing, on the other hand, confers several advantages. First, the recovery hardware uses the equipment already on board, i.e. the fuel tank and rocket engine. Propellant landings can also be used at much higher speeds than most parachutes, allowing the booster to slow down at several points on the descent.

This allows the landing hardware to allocate more mass that is not needed in parachute recovery, such as the landing leg, which has a combined mass of about 2,000 kg. The propellant landing also helps a lot to indicate the landing.

This greatly reduces the cost to reuse, as you can literally blow up the booster to a specified point. Parachutes are not very accurate. It is far easier to accurately hit a spot with a propellant landing than with a parachute. Another factor in the decision to develop a propellant landing is that you can’t land a large vehicle on Mars or the Moon with just a parachute.

The atmosphere there is very thin. So work in developing propulsion landings for the Falcon 9 easily flows into development for propulsive landings for other spacecraft, most notably the Starship. You can’t do it with a parachute.

When planning to land on airless bodies like the Moon, parachutes are useless. SpaceX actually tried to use parachutes initially.

There were several early Falcon 9 boosters that used engines to gently touch down on the ocean. That’s when SpaceX discovered that dropping the first stage of the Falcon 9 into the ocean destroyed it.

It’s not even about rust, the Falcon 9’s first stage is so fragile that it breaks into pieces and sinks just by falling into the water. True, they were already planning to land them on solid surfaces at this point, but this helped to prove why this was the right solution and why ocean recovery was not working.

Compared to parachute splashdown, propellant-powered landing helps in re-entry into a controlled environment. It helps to land exactly where you like land or sea or mars. It helps to land at zero speed. It uses less than half the weight of a parachute.

Overall this makes it very easy to make rockets rapidly reusable in the least amount of time and cost. For all these reasons, SpaceX does not land its Falcon and Starship rockets with parachutes but with propulsion.

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