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SpaceX unveils Falcon 9 steering fins, landing platform

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Nov 24, 2014, 22:01 UTC

Sen—Space Exploration Technologies has outfitted a Falcon 9 rocket, slated to blast off next month, with steerable fins to help guide the first stage back to a landing platform in the ocean.

Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, as the California-based company is known, provided a sneak peek of the grid fins on Twitter.

“Grid fins are stowed on ascent and then deploy on reentry for ‘X-wing’ style control. Each fin moves independently for pitch/yaw/roll,” Musk wrote.

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The above picture was tweeted by Elon Musk. Image credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 fins are similar but larger than a set of steerable fins used during a June test flight of a Falcon 9 Reusable prototype from SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, facility. During that test, the fins deployed about 75 seconds after liftoff and folded back just before the booster returned to the ground.  

The test vehicle, a modified three-engine version of a Falcon 9 first-stage, was destroyed during a follow-on run in August due to a sensor malfunction.

In addition to its predecessor Grasshopper and Falcon 9R test programs, SpaceX has been using some of its operational missions to further develop technologies needed to recover its rockets.

Two rockets were able to relight their engines and touch down vertically on the ocean’s surface momentarily before keeling over and exploding.

For its next flight, a space station cargo delivery mission for NASA, the rocket’s first-stage will be aiming to land on a platform in the ocean.

Construction of the 300ft by 170ft (91m by 52m) platform is complete, a picture posted by Musk on Twitter shows.

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Elon Musk, the SpaceX CEO, shared this picture of the landing platform with his followers and tweeted "Autonomous spaceport drone ship. Thrusters repurposed from deep sea oil rigs hold position within 3 metres even in a storm". Image credit: SpaceX

Built by a shipyard in Louisana, the platform includes thrusters salvaged from deep sea oil rigs that are designed to keep the platform stead within 3 metres—even in a storm, Musk said.

The Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon cargo ship, is slated to launch on 16 December from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Musk said last month that if the landing test is successful, the company likely will refurbish the rocket and fly it again on another mission.

Eventually, SpaceX wants to land its rockets back at the launch site.