SpaceX has launched a satellite into orbit using a reusable, indeed reused, first stage booster on the Falcon 9 space launch vehicle. This is the first time that a reused booster has been used to launch a space rocket.
This offers the prospect of radically reducing the cost of space missions, as the use and discarding of boosters significantly adds to the cost of space launches. The use of a reused first stage booster suggests that one need only refuel the booster and it would be just about ready for reuse, like an aircraft, however that is not the case here as reuse requires extensive refurbishment for the next mission. Such was the case with the Space Shuttle which did not make good on early promises of cost reduction.
However, Falcon 9 may well portend the future for, as reported by the New York Times,
SpaceX, however, has a better chance. The Falcon 9 was designed from the start to be reusable. Its engines, for example, do not offer cutting-edge performance — but that means they are simpler and more robust, and thus easier, faster and cheaper to get ready for the next flight
The hope is that lowering the cost of space missions through reused boosters will lead to more space missions and expand the commercial uses of space.
This poses challenges for the regulation of space. As we know space is already becoming crowded and greater frequency of space missions will add to the problem. That is to say, extra traffic in space will pose problems for space situational awareness and space regulation.
On space situational awareness there are a lot of untracked debris that can affect satellites, and the greater use of space through radically reduced capital costs would add to the problem. Greater traffic also raises the prospect of greater near misses and collisions between satellites.
There has already been a collision in space involving two satellites, one of which was a commercial satellite, that of the Iridium 33 with the Russian Cosmos 2251, and that collision was not known of until after the event.
In regard to regulation there exists no regulatory body which can enforce a commercial space operator to manoeuvre its satellites to avoid collisions or to compel the deorbiting of satellites after their projected lifespan.
Private companies might be willing to take more risks than the U.S. government would like, Blount explained, by weighing the cost of a collision versus a loss of satellite lifespan due to having to maneuver the craft
Commercial space launch has the tendency to bring externalities into space in a big way. We tend to view space as an endless expanse so the concept externality, more suited to a finite terrestrial setting, could easily be construed as not applying to space.
But it clearly does, and the growing commercial space launch industry requires us to apply the usual mechanisms, of monitoring, regulation, enforcement and penalties through the public sector to space. The image of swashbuckling space entrepreneurs operating in an endless frontier obscures this, as it obscures the significant levels of public investment in space technology that has enabled commercial use of space.
Speaking of which.
In other space news, whilst we were getting excited by North Korea’s (likely) second stage rocket engine test for a new space launch vehicle NASA conducted a hot test of the controller for the RS-25 engine (modified space shuttle engine). Four RS-25 engines will power the core booster of the Space Launch System, the next generation of heavy SLV which might well be used for a manned mission to Mars.