As NASA eyes future missions to Mars, it needs to accumulate data on how large-payload rockets behave in atmospheric reentry conditions. A recent collaboration between NASA and SpaceX allowed the space agency to capture some unique data on the reentry of a large rocket under Mars-like conditions in the upper atmosphere. Thermal video of the event is not only full of useful scientific data, it’s cool to watch.
The video follows the path of the Falcon 9 first stage, which is the largest section of the rocket. It’s what launches the payload from the launch pad and takes it most of the way into orbit. After the second stage separates to complete the job, the first stage is either discarded, or recovered. Perfecting a method of landing and recovering the first stage is what SpaceX is working on right now (the Falcon 9R).
The Falcon 9 is a perfect vehicle to provide this sort of reentry data because its first stage is capable of powered descent. Specifically, part of the return procedure is firing the rocket engines in retrograde, or in the direction of travel. NASA calls this supersonic retro-propulsion. This is the part of landing where the rocket slows its descent, and would be an important component of future Mars missions, both manned and unmanned.