Thanks to Musk’s penchant for sharing his ideas directly with the public, SpaceX is inundated with all sorts of suggestions from citizen scientists and space explorers – some of which are practical and some of which are eccentric. This latest proposal definitely spans both of these categories! In an animation shared on Twitter, 3D digital artist Nick Henning offered an alternative vision for a SpaceX tower that could “catch” the Super Heavy.
For years, Musk has kept the public informed of his company’s progress with the Starship super-heavy launch system. When completed, this will be the first fully reusable rocket and the most powerful launch system ever built. This two-stage vehicle will consist of a spacecraft element (the spaceship) and a first stage rocket booster (Super Heavy).
A few months ago, Musk shared on Twitter how he and SpaceX were investigating a special launch tower that could help regain the Super Heavy Booster. This would set it apart from the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which rely on their Raptor engines for a controlled descent and then land with a series of extendable legs.
This tower would “catch” the Super Heavy and slowly lower it onto the landing site. As Musk put it at the time:
“We’ll try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm by lifting the load with the help of the lattice ribs. Saves mass and costs for the legs and enables the booster to be repositioned immediately on the starter bracket – ready to be refilled for an hour. “
Based on this description, another 3D designer (Youtube handle Mini3D) created the animation shown above. During a recent exchange, Musk repeated the idea in response to a tweet from a follower who expressed his admiration for SpaceX and its continued commitment to creating fully reusable launch systems.
“Starship Booster, the largest flying object ever designed, is captured from the sky by the launch tower,” Musk tweeted. “A big step forward as the return flight can be completed in less than an hour.”
Another user joined the thread and asked if SpaceX would also “catch” the spaceship or rely on a set of deployable landing legs. The question has been of paramount importance since SpaceX began high-altitude flight tests with Starship prototypes. So far, all four prototypes (which are based on landing legs) have broken down and exploded either on the pad (SN8, SN9 and SN10) or in the air (SN11). In response, Musk tweeted the following:
“The ideal scenario imo is catching Starship in a horizontal“ glide ”without a landing fire, although this is quite a challenge for the tower! The next best thing is catching with the tower, with the emergency landing mode on the skirt (no legs). “
I got a crazy idea after @elonmusk tweeted recently.
“The ideal scenario imo is to catch Starship in a horizontal” glide “without a landing fire, although that is quite a challenge for the tower …”
This crazy big catch tower can rise to the challenge?
But probably not … pic.twitter.com/3L1NST6YeV
– Nick Henning (@ nickhenning3d) April 15, 2021
This inspired a bold response from 3D digital artist Nick Henning, who posted an answer a few days later (April 15, 2021). In a 3D animation created by Henning himself, he showed how a “crazy big tower” can weigh the spaceship after it has reoriented itself in the air (also known as a “belly flop” maneuver) and has completed its horizontal descent. This would eliminate the difficult engine reignition and burn of landing.
At this point, the Starship prototype swings its rear end around and descends on the landing pad. Instead, Henning produced a variant of the launch tower that was based on a cradle and a counterweight. As you can see from the video (see above), the spaceship would land horizontally on the cradle (i.e. no landing fire), which would absorb the force of the fall and come to rest.
In practice, the concept is similar to a swing, or possibly a reverse trebuchet – but where the spaceship is the rocket. Henning himself expressed doubts that the concept would solve SpaceX’s current dilemma. “That crazy big catch tower could be up to the challenge?” he wrote. “But probably not …” Still, it shows how the challenges posed by reusable launch vehicles lead to all kinds of innovative solutions.
It also shows how visualizations can support ideas from the theoretical phase to the point where they become standard practice. Other animations contributed in recent years include a representation of the spaceship performing the belly-flop maneuver and soft landing, as well as the radical proposal known as the “Artificial Gravity Spaceship”.