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Airbus takes on SpaceX in the race to make a reusable rocket

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Airbus is known for its ubiquitous aircraft that safely gets you to and from your destination. But the company has apparently been working in secret on a way to safely return the rockets we send to space. It's a bullet-shaped housing with wings called Adeline.

Rockets are big, loud, impressive feats of technology. They're also wasteful, primarily because we still haven't figured out a way to reuse them. When the first stage of a rocket falls back to Earth, the inevitable impact leaves companies with only one option — pick up the pieces. We know that SpaceX is tantalizingly close to realizing its reusable Falcon 9, but there really aren't any other publicized solutions in the industry.

That's where Adeline comes in. Airbus has been working on the idea since 2010, and it's much different that what Elon Musk has cooked up. Instead of using aerodynamic wings and retro-rockets to land on a platform (SpaceX's preferred method), Adeline will use wings and a set of propellers to safely return a rocket's engines and avionics.

Adeline is more efficient than the reusable Falcon 9, but returns less

When the rocket's first stage completes the job of putting a payload into orbit, it will separate and begin its descent. Adeline will then detach and eventually coast to a safe runway landing, guided by its wings and ballistic shape, and slowed and stabilized by the propellers. It could then be serviced and attached to a new rocket, quickly ready to perform the same task.

Airbus carefully caveats Adeline by saying it makes rockets "semi-reusable," which is an important point. The rest of the rocket's first stage — namely, the fuel tank — will crash into the ocean as usual. SpaceX, on the other hand, plans to return all of the Falcon 9's first-stage equipment along with its massive fuel tank.

The benefit of Airbus' system is that it won't require the extra fuel that SpaceX needs to return an entire rocket stage. Adeline could also be adapted to be used on any rocket, though Airbus says that it is currently only developing it to be used for the European Space Agency's Ariane 6. That rocket won't make its first launch until at least 2020.