On CRS-16, the landing Falcon 9 booster entered a spin rotation due to a stalling grid fin hydraulic pump.

According to Musk, the engines stabilized the spin. How is this possible? The main engines thrust is along the axis of rotation. The side thrusters are perpendicular to that axis but do not exert any rotational moment, as far as I know.

And a side question: the two grid fins in the above video appear to be displaced in favor of a left spin, contrary to the actual right spin of the booster. Is this correct? If so, why aren't they damping the rotation? The other grid fin that is not seen in the clip must be rotated the other way.


Real time footage in higher resolution from the onboard camera, including Hans Koenigsmann talking non-tech:

up vote 46 down vote accepted

The other answers are great demonstrations of F9's capabilities, but I'll be the contrarian here and say they're all wrong and perhaps Elon oversimplified things for a tweet.

This was a one engine landing burn. A single engine lacks the ability to control roll on its own, unless it has a vectoring turbopump exhaust. Merlin 1C had this feature for roll control on Falcon 1, but Merlin 1Ds on Falcon 9 have fixed turbopump exhausts.

Only one 'engine' aboard the booster had the ability to control roll, the nitrogen cold gas thrusters. One can be seen trying to counter the roll several times during the landing attempt, such as here:

View from an onboard camera showing the side of an F9 rocket booster, with two stuck fins and a thruster visibly firing a plume towards the left of the frame

The uncontrolled roll was induced by grid fin failure. The landing burn slowed the vehicle, reducing air flow through the fins and lowering the unwanted control input. Eventually it slowed enough that the cold gas reaction control thruster could dampen much of the spin. More rotation was shed when the legs deployed, changing the moment of inertia (the classic dancer putting her arms out to slow). Note that it was still spinning some all the way up to splashdown, so the roll was not stopped, merely reduced.

I think Elon was going for brevity on Twitter. The main Merlin engine helped regain control of the vehicle, but it didn't directly kill the spin. The cold gas thrusters (a type of 'engine') did much of the work after the landing burn made the fins less effective.

Prefer it in video form? Scott Manley walks through the descent videos, making much the same points I did here:

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    Does that mean the cold gas thrusters can change their orientation? – Everyday Astronaut Dec 6 at 19:34
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    Such a good point about the rotational inertia! Now the bonus question: Can someone use this footage to figure out the mass ratio between the landing legs and the main body? Feels like they're heavier than I expected! – Nick S Dec 6 at 19:35
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    @rehctawrats No, they are fixed on the side but each thruster is actually a cluster of nozzles aimed aft, left and right, and outboard - so two thruster clusters can pitch and yaw, roll, and provide ullage thrust to settle propellants. – Saiboogu Dec 6 at 20:03
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    one other factor- once the downward velocity was killed (or almost killed), there's no increase in spin. In a theoretical world where there was an excess of fuel, the spinning would have stopped if the stage hovered above the water, as the speed was scrubbed by the engine and the thruster got rid of the remaining spin since there was no more spin being added. – tedder42 Dec 8 at 21:17
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    This was found in the Pod Bay, and agrees with your conclusion. Possibly add to your answer? youtube.com/watch?v=EH1nyPIvLjI&t=10s – uhoh Dec 9 at 1:41

I think, image being worth a thousand words, just the picture how three engines can affect spin of a rocket explains it best:

enter image description here

Falcon 9 engines are gimballed, and the landing was to use three. Unfortunately they are ignited only a short moment before landing, so they couldn't be used to maneuver the booster to the landing pad.

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    This landing burn only used the center engine - three engine landing burns seem to be the exception, not the norm. – Saiboogu Dec 6 at 14:08
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    Upvoted for Kerbal Space Program! Never been a more accessible learning tool for rocket science. – MindS1 Dec 6 at 14:27
  • @MindS1 - Relevant XKCDs: Orbital Mechanics, Six Words...although I don't think that second one applies to SpaceX – BruceWayne Dec 7 at 16:41

The most recent Falcon9 landing burns have used three engines (more engines makes for a more fuel-efficient landing, although it also requires a lot more precision). The three are in a straight line, with a center one and two outer ones that can be independently vectored. That allows them to provide torque around pitch, yaw and roll axes.

As CRS-16 slowed down, that adverse roll from the grid fin dropped, allowing the engines to eventually overpower it.

As to the secondary question: Note that a "grid fin" is a "grid of fins", not "one fin made from a grid": The aerodynamic element is each little piece of vertical grid.

enter image description here

As air goes past the grid elements, through the fin, each bit of grid can deflect it. In the orientation shown in the video, the air is deflected right (blue arrows), causing a roll to the left (red arrow).

  • more posts with background on grid fins: 1, 2, 3, 4 – uhoh Dec 6 at 11:40

It can be seen in ground camera footage that only one engine was burning throughout the landing. One engine cannot control roll in any meaningful way, though there might be some subtle second-order effect I don't know of which the gimbal rotation can use to apply a torque to the system:

enter image description here

A large proportion of the spin seems to vanish when the landing legs deploy; I think this is a classic angular momentum / moment of inertia problem: c.f. ice skaters.

The landing legs collectively weigh 2000kg, and a dry first stage weighs around 25,000 kg: I=0.5MR^2 leads to roughly double the moment of inertia.

Presumably the cold-gas thrusters were then sufficient to null out the remaining velocity.

As @leftroundabout pointed out, this is a total fallacy. The thrusters necessarily have to remove the same amount of angular momentum.

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    It's known -- The Merlin 1D has a fixed turbopump exhaust. That feature was deprecated with the Merlin 1C and Falcon 1. – Saiboogu Dec 6 at 15:04
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    “roughly double the moment of inertia... presumably the cold-gas thrusters were then sufficient” doesn't really make sense. Increasing the moment of interia reduces the angular frequency but not the angular momentum (in fact, constness of angular momentum is the reason the rotation slows down). Only if the cold-gas thrusters were at the tips of the legs would they become more effective with deployed legs. – leftaroundabout Dec 7 at 11:12
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    @leftaroundabout Oh man, you're totally right, thanks. Edited. – 0xDBFB7 Dec 7 at 12:30
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    Could you elaborate on the rotating cats? – Everyday Astronaut Dec 8 at 21:30
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    @EverydayAstronaut It's probably nonsense; don't currently have time to run the numbers...a better physicist than I might be able to determine whether a two-segment object such as a gimbal producing thrust could produce a net deceleration. There's gotta be a second-order effect in there somewhere. I'm thinking something along the lines of a phase shift between the gimbal rotation and the body rotation causing a slightly off-axis thrust vector. – 0xDBFB7 Dec 12 at 1:22

The User-Guide for the Falcon 9 says that pitch, yaw and roll can be controlled by the first stage's gimballed engines, see Table 2.1 on page 11.

enter image description here

Why rockets use gimballing?

Any rocket that is built to land has to have full thrust vectoring, since the grid fins or any other aerodynamic control elements only work when the rocket is moving through the air with sufficient speed.

In the last moments before touch down, the rocket is quite slow, otherwise there would be no soft landing. Thus, to retain full control of the rocket, there has to be some thrust vectoring for the phases of flight, when the rocket is slow (near the ground before landing, also in the initial phase of lift-off) or the air is too thin for the aerodynamic controls to work.

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    Rather than RTFM, in this context, Just Read The Instructions might be more appropriate... :-) – Steve Melnikoff Dec 6 at 13:08
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    +1 Links break, so I've added a screenshot to ensure future readers can have the same RTFM experience when it does. – uhoh Dec 6 at 14:08
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    That doesn't directly address the question since that table in the manual only discusses assent not decent. And like several other commenters here, from watching the landing I thought it was a 1 engine burn not 3. With only the center engine firing, I don't think you can get roll control unless in addition to pivoting it on a gimbal you have a way to shift it off center. I haven't seen anything to indicate that the engine is capable of the latter. – Dan Neely Dec 6 at 14:21

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