Germany Begins Reusability Study to Capture Rockets in Midair and Land Them With a Plane | 3/31/2019 | Caleb Henry
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WASHINGTON — The Germany space agency DLR is beginning a study this month on a reusable launcher concept that would use a winged first-stage booster captured on descent by an aircraft and towed back to land.

DLR said March 20 that the three-year study seeks to develop a "rocket catcher" with an international team that will build on previous DLR simulations and flight experiments.

Project - FALCon - Formation - Flight - Launcher

The project is called FALCon, or the "Formation flight for in-Air Launcher 1st stage Capturing demonstration."

In an interview, Martin Sippel, DLR's FALCon project leader, said the European Commission granted 2.6 million euros ($3 million) for the project — a small amount in the world of launchers, but one that he expects will go far, since early tests call for flight demonstrations with unmanned aerial vehicles and not rockets.

Sippel - Idea - Rocket - Stage - Descent

Sippel said the idea of capturing a rocket stage on descent came from evaluations of how to save mass on the rocket. Landings like those SpaceX conducts with the Falcon 9 booster require extra fuel to propulsively slow the vehicle when it returns to Earth. By equipping a booster with wings and gliding it to a recovery aircraft, the rocket stage can use more fuel to deliver a payload into orbit, Sippel said.

"If we tow it back, we save on the mass of the complete propulsion system for fly back," he said. "That provides a performance advantage."

Sippel - FALCon - Program - Days - Costs

Sippel said the FALCon program is in its early days, and full costs for the project have not been finalized. If the results of the study are promising, DLR will consider pitching it for the European Space Agency's Future Launchers Preparatory Program, he said.

Two years ago, ESA added the French space agency CNES' Prometheus reusable engine program to the Future Launchers Preparatory Program — a step that put the engine on a path that...
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