Autonomous spaceport drone ship

Feb 20, 2015, 7:00AM EST
Autonomous spaceport drone ship
The barge used by SpaceX for landing its first-stage rocket after launch

 The deck barge Marmac 300 (CG No. 1063184) was built in 1998 by Gulf Coast Fabrication in Pearlington, Mississippi for McDonough Marine Service, a tug and barge company based in Metairie, Louisiana.  As built, it was 288 feet in length, with a 100 foot beam and a depth of almost 20 feet.  In 2014, it was chartered by SpaceX for use as a landing pad for returning first-stage rockets after launching objects into orbit.  The upper deck of the Marmac 300 was extended to a length of 300 feet and the width was extended to 170 feet.  Azimuthing thrusters with modular diesel-hydraulic-drive power units and a modular controller manufactured by Thrustmaster were installed, with one thruster on each corner of the barge.  The thrusters may be operated autonomously or by remote control from a nearby service vessel.  The barge itself though is unmanned.  With an onboard electronic navigation system, the barge is capable of precision positioning in either the autonomous or remote control mode.  The barge is currently based in Jacksonville, Florida.  The first and, to date, only rocket landing test was conducted in the North Atlantic 200 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral and 165 miles southeast of Charleston.  The test occurred on 10 January 2015 after the launch of the Falcon 9 Flight 14 of an International Space Station resupply cargo craft from Cape Canaveral.  A controlled descent of the first stage was conducted after it successfully separated from the second stage at an altitude of approximately 50 miles.  As the 140-foot long rocket stage descended, four grid fin control surfaces were extended to allow for precise maneuvering and legs provided a stable base sixty feet in diameter for the rocket upon landing on the barge.  Unfortunately, it was a hard landing.  The rocket and some of the support equipment were damaged.  SpaceX pledges to learn from this event and make appropriate changes prior to further launches.  

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Bob Condon
"Autonomous spaceport drone ship" gives us a glimpse into the future. Fully automated Navigation, Ship Handling and Engineering Systems have been a fact of life for well over twenty years. Integration of GPS for real time positioning, coupled with hazard warning provide the mariner with tools to avoid collisions, groundings and loss of the navigational picture. Looking downstream "drone cargo & tank ships" could be operated by licensed shore based personnel, is not the impossible dream, especially for ships sailing on long routes. Crew savings would be substantial, prescribed transit lanes for such ships are well within the realm of possibility, right along with end of transit culmination points permitting the ships to wait in a queue prior to port entry, where adequate crew and pilot can board and bring the ship in. Transit via choke points such as the Straits of Malacca, English Channel, Panama Canal and Suez Canal, could be handled with corresponding transfer of control if necessary. Too far fetched? New regulations/rules certainly would have to be put in place, but this is not beyond the realm of our capability. MARAD needs to lead the way by designating just one ship to become the "beta test" for such an effort. Improvements and modifications would follow. Twenty years ago if I mentioned that we would be flying Predator Drones over Afghanistan, dropping ordnance on target, controlled by a couple of guys sitting in a van in Nevada, you would have called me crazy.
2/27/2015 8:26:38 PM