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SpaceX to put Falcon 9 upgrades to the test Sunday

Posted: September 28, 2013

SpaceX plans to launch a souped-up version of its Falcon 9 rocket Sunday on a proving flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, testing upgraded engines and other systems designed to achieve the company's ambitious manifest of satellite launches, space station resupply missions and crewed expeditions.

The Falcon 9 rocket stands upright on its launch pad Friday at Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News
The 224-foot-tall rocket, sticking out above the coastal hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is scheduled to blast off at 9 a.m. PDT (12 p.m. EDT; 1600 GMT) at the opening of a three-hour launch window.

The weather forecast is favorable, with an 80 percent chance of acceptable conditions Sunday morning. The only concern is with the altitude of the cloud bases over Vandenberg.

Six satellites are mounted on top of the two-stage rocket, including Canada's Cassiope spacecraft equipped with a sensor suite to measure space weather as it dips in and out of the ionosphere, a region of the upper atmosphere where atoms are stripped of electrons by blasts of solar radiation.

The liquid-fueled Falcon 9 should reach orbit within 9 minutes after successive first and second stage engine burns to boost the launcher out of the atmosphere and accelerate it beyond 17,000 mph.

Deployment of the 1,100-pound Cassiope satellite, operated by MDA Corp. in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency and the University of Calgary, is scheduled for approximately 14 minutes after liftoff. The second stage will eject five more satellites over the following seven minutes.

See our launch timeline for more details.

But Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO and chief designer, says he considers Sunday's flight a test launch. Cassiope and the mission's other passengers, built by university students, got a cut-rate deal to launch on the first mission of the upgraded Falcon 9, with Cassiope's owners reportedly paying $10 million for the ride.

"We don't consider this to be an operational launch," Musk said Friday in an interview with Spaceflight Now. "It's a demo or a beta launch. Cassiope understands that. They got a pretty significant discount since this is a new Falcon 9."

Sunday's launch will mark the first flight of a Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4-East, a facility leased by SpaceX from the U.S. Air Force.

Artist's concept of the six-sided Cassiope spacecraft with instrument booms deployed in orbit. Credit: MDA Corp.
Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO and chief designer, said the company spent 17 months and nearly $100 million modifying the launch complex, which was formerly the West Coast home of the Air Force's Titan 4 heavy-lift rocket.

Workers built a rocket processing building, constructed a massive transporter-erector to move the Falcon 9 to the launch mount, and added propellant storage tanks, pumps and plumbing.

But much of SpaceX's attention was on improvements to the launcher itself, adding simplicity, reliability and capacity to the previous version of the Falcon 9, which successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., five times on test flights and cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.

Musk said the redesigned Falcon 9, known as the Falcon 9 v1.1, is the prototype for a reusable rocket SpaceX envisions could drastically reduce launch costs, decreasing the price of a Falcon 9 flight even lower than SpaceX's advertised rate, which undercuts competing rockets, such as the Russian Proton and Europe's Ariane 5 launcher.

Until the arrival of SpaceX, the Proton and Ariane 5 dominated the commercial launch market, along with peripheral players such as Sea Launch, the Lockheed Martin-marketed Atlas 5, and China's Long March rocket family.

But SpaceX has captured a healthy slice of the commercial launch market, even without launching a Falcon 9 rocket into a commercial orbit such as geostationary transfer orbit, the drop-off point for most communications satellites.

Astronaut crews, U.S. military spy platforms, interplanetary probes and satellites to broadcast television and broadband Internet into millions of homes could one day ride the upgraded Falcon 9 to space.

One objective of Sunday's launch - a secondary goal, Musk says - is to recover the Falcon 9's cylindrical 11.8-foot-diameter first stage after its job is completed.

"We are going to try to land the first stage in the Pacific by initiating a re-entry burn just before re-entry," Musk said. "We would have two relights of the first stage, with the last one just of the center engine."

The Falcon 9 v1.1 on the launch pad in California. Credit: SpaceX
The goal is to brake the first stage's velocity to near zero by the time it reaches the surface of the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles south of Vandenberg, with the empty rocket gently splashing into to the sea to be retrieved by recovery crews on a boat stationed in the area.

"I give pretty low odds of this recovery working on this flight," Musk said. "The point of this mission is demonstrating the ascent of the crewed version of the Falcon 9."

Musk offered a 20 percent chance of the recovery scheme working on this mission.

"We're more worried about forces on the rocket than high temperatures," Musk said.

But he is confident Falcon 9's reusability will be proven on future flights with tweaks and alterations.

Some time early next year, Musk said engineers will add landing legs to a Falcon 9 rocket to validate SpaceX's vision of developing a "flyback" first stage designed to automatically return itself to a vertical rocket-assisted touchdown on designated landing pad near its launch site.

Musk said SpaceX's current target is to affix landing legs to the next Falcon 9 launch of a Dragon cargo craft to the space station, a mission now planned to blast off in January. He did not say whether that mission would attempt a full flyback profile or would simply test the landing legs.

The first stage used on Sunday's launch was never designed to be recovered in the water, Musk said.

"All of our tests have been on land," Musk said, referring to SpaceX's Grasshopper test rocket, which has flown seven times, reaching up to 1,000 feet in altitude before returning to its launch pad at the company's facility in McGregor, Texas.


SpaceX redesigned the Falcon 9 rocket with an eye toward the future and cognizant of jam-packed manifest, domestic and foreign competition in the launch market, and the demands of human spaceflight.

It is this version of the Falcon 9 that SpaceX hopes will safely deliver astronauts to orbit on the way to the space station, beginning as soon as 2017.

SpaceX is one of three companies developing spaceships rated for human passengers under NASA's commercial crew program. Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp. are also in the hunt, along with their partner United Launch Alliance.

Reliability is paramount in the launch business, and cost and schedule are right behind in a matrix of concerns for rocket buyers.

Musk said SpaceX answered these appeals, and added power and efficiency to the Falcon 9's Merlin engines to loft heftier payloads into higher orbits.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 in a horizontal position at Space Launch Complex 4-East. Credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News
SpaceX engineers installed a triple-redundant flight computer in the Falcon 9 rocket, adding another level of confidence in the launcher's avionics. They also wrote new software for the computer, which is based on a flight-proven unit from SpaceX's Dragon cargo-carrying space station freighter.

"You could put a bullet hole in any one of the avionics boxes and it would just keep flying," Musk said.

Designers adjusted the connection points between the Falcon 9's first and second stages, replacing nine hardware interfaces and three spring-like pusher elements - pneumatic devices which ensure stage separation occurs - with three connectors with integrated pushers.

"We go from 12 things that can go wrong to three at the point of staging," Musk said.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 is powered by 10 Merlin 1D engines - nine on the first stage and one on the second stage - each generating 147,000 pounds of sea level thrust. The vacuum-rated upper stage engine, sporting a niobium nozzle to radiate engine heat, produces 161,000 pounds of thrust once out of the atmosphere.

The Merlin 1C engine, used on all five of the Falcon 9's previous missions, was capable of firing with 95,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.

Along with greater performance, the Merlin 1D is easier to manufacture thanks to high-efficiency processes, increased robotic construction and a reduced parts count, according to SpaceX's press kit.

SpaceX upgraded the propellant injection system inside the Merlin 1D, replacing two valves dedicated to fuel and oxidizer with a single unit to improve reliability and save weight.

Musk said the Merlin 1D engine weighs in at less than 1,000 pounds.

"If we don't have the world record for thrust-to-weight ratio, we're very close," Musk said.

Musk's rocket team modified the engine arrangement on the first stage, an effort he said allows engineers to remove aerodynamic manifolds around the perimeter of the rocket.

Earlier Falcon 9s featured a "tic-tac-toe" layout of the nine first stage engines arrayed in a three-by-three pattern. The Falcon 9 v1.1 uses what SpaceX calls an "octaweb" design, with eight engines surrounding a center engine.

A view of the engine arrangement on the Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage. Credit: SpaceX
According to Musk, engineers installed ablative bumpers between the engines to prevent a mishap with one engine from damaging another.

SpaceX touts the Falcon 9's ability to still accomplish its primary mission even with two first stage engine failures, and a Falcon 9 launch in October 2012 successfully delivered its Dragon payload on course to the International Space Station despite a violent engine shutdown 79 seconds after liftoff.

An Orbcomm communications satellite riding piggyback on the October 2012 launch was deposited in a lower-than-planned orbit and burned up in the atmosphere less than a week later before fulfilling its mission.

The first stage upgrades also include a heat shield and stretched propellant tanks for the Merlin engines' supply of kerosene and liquid oxygen.

"We put a stronger heat shield at the base of the rocket to better enable the first stage to survive the high dynamic pressure on re-entry," Musk said.

The new Falcon 9 first stage is 60 percent longer but has the same diameter as the Falcon 9's previous version, permitting the rocket to be fabricated with the same tooling already inside SpaceX's rocket factory in Hawthorne, Calif.

But the lengthening of the rocket makes it more susceptible to environmental effects like wind shear, Musk said, forcing extra analysis to make sure it can launch safely.

The interstage and propulsion sections remain the same dimensions as the previous Falcon 9, according to SpaceX.

The last big change on Sunday's launch will be the first flight test of the Falcon 9's payload fairing, a clamshell-like shroud enclosing the satellites while the rocket is exposed on the launch pad and ascends through the thick layers of the atmosphere.

The 17-foot-diameter fairing, which was developed in-house by SpaceX, will be jettisoned about three-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, once the rocket is above the airflow of the lower atmosphere.

None of the Falcon 9 rocket's other launches used a payload fairing.

Musk said the improvements spell a significant boost in reliability, but the changes must be demonstrated in flight to satisfy the contractual demands of SpaceX's other customers, including SES of Luxembourg, one of the world's largest satellite operators.

The SES 8 communications satellite is next in line on the Falcon 9 manifest, with liftoff from Cape Canaveral scheduled as soon as the end of October.

The engine upgrades and mass savings also translate into an 80 percent boost in payload lift capacity over the Falcon 9's earlier model, Musk said.

Engineers did all the testing they could on the ground, Musk said, looking for design deficiencies, workmanship problems, software bugs and other problems which could bring the rocket down.

But the real test will be in flight, and Sunday's launch will do just that.