Friday, June 4, 2010

Falcon 9 - Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Click here for the webcam.

Falcon 9 has a 4-hr launch window from 11 am - 3 pm EDT today for its initial flight. Atlas required 14 failed launch attempts before succeeding. Behold commercial spaceflight's new workhorse:

Falcon 9 is a spaceflight launch system that uses rockets designed and manufactured by SpaceX. Both stages of the two-stage-to-orbit vehicles, which use liquid oxygen (LOX) and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) propellants, are intended to be reusable.[4] Multiple variants are planned with payloads of between 10,450 kg and 26,610 kg to low Earth orbit, and between 4,540 kg and 15,010 kg to geostationary transfer orbit, placing the Falcon 9 design in the medium-lift to heavy-lift range of launch systems.

As of February 23, 2010, the first Falcon 9 is upright on its launch pad at Launch Complex 40 in preparation for its maiden launch. Currently the maiden flight is tentatively scheduled for launch on June 4, 2010,[5] delayed from Nov. 29, Feb. 9, March 3, March 8, May 16, May 27 and June 2.[2] SpaceX has repeatedly stated that all launch dates are subject to change as they work through various issues and the scheduled launch date should be treated as the earliest possible date, not the actual launch.[6] However the June 4 date is now subject only to weather conditions as the testing of the FTS has been completed and is nominal. Falcon 9 will be the first new rocket to launch from Cape Canaveral since 2002.[7]

The Falcon 9 will be the launch vehicle for the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. The Falcon 9 and Dragon combination won a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract from NASA to resupply the International Space Station under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Bigelow Aerospace is also considering the Falcon 9 for their Orion Lite manned spacecraft.



Falcon 9 (left) and Falcon 9 Heavy (right)

The base Falcon 9 is a two stage, LOX/RP-1 powered launch vehicle. Its first stage is powered by nine SpaceX Merlin 1C rocket engines with 125,000 lbf sea-level thrust per engine for a total thrust on liftoff of approximately 4.9 million N (1.1 million lbf).[8] The Falcon 9 first stage uses a pyrophoric mixture of triethylaluminum-triethylborane (TEA-TEB) as a first-stage ignitor. [9]

The Falcon 9 Heavy consists of a standard Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as liquid strap-on boosters,[10] which is conceptually similar to EELV launchers Delta IV Heavy and the future Atlas V HLV, and also to the Russian Angara carrier rocket.

The upper stage is powered by a single Merlin engine modified for vacuum operation with an expansion ratio of 117:1 and a nominal burn time of 345 seconds. For added reliability of restart, the engine has dual redundant pyrophoric igniters (TEA-TEB).[8] SpaceX has expressed hopes that both stages will eventually be reusable.[4]

The interstage, which connects the upper and lower stage for Falcon 9, is a carbon fiber aluminum core composite structure. Stage separation occurs via reusable separation collets and a pneumatic pusher system. The Falcon 9 tank walls and domes are made from aluminum lithium alloy. SpaceX uses an all friction stir welded tank, the highest strength and most reliable welding technique available. The second stage tank of Falcon 9 is simply a shorter version of the first stage tank and uses most of the same tooling, material and manufacturing techniques. This results in significant cost savings in vehicle production.[8]

As with the company's smaller Falcon 1 vehicle, Falcon 9's launch sequence includes a hold-down feature that allows full engine ignition and systems check before liftoff. After first stage engine start, the Falcon is held down and not released for flight until all propulsion and vehicle systems are confirmed to be operating normally. An automatic safe shut-down and unloading of propellant occurs if any off nominal conditions are detected.[8]

Falcon 9 will have triple redundant flight computers and inertial navigation, with a GPS overlay for additional orbit insertion accuracy.[8]

The Falcon 9 will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40.

Launcher versions

Version Falcon 9 Falcon 9 Heavy
Stage 0 2 boosters with 9 × Merlins 1C each
Stage 1 9 × Merlin 1C 9 × Merlin 1C
Stage 2 1 × Merlin 1C 1 × Merlin 1C
(max; m)
50 or 54 (large fairing) 50 or 54 (large fairing)
3.6 3.6 or 5.2 (large fairing)[10]
Initial thrust
4,400 12,258
Takeoff weight
325 885
Fairing diameter
(Inner; m)
4.6 4.6
(LEO; kg)
8,560 (polar orbit from Kwajalein) or 10,450 (launch at Cape Canaveral) 29,610
(GTO; kg)
4,680 (launch at Kwajalein) or 4,540 (launch at Cape Canaveral) 15,010
(Mil. USD)
35 to LEO; 35 to 55 (according to Satellite Mass) to GEO 90 to LEO; 55 to 90 (according to Satellite Mass) to GEO
minimal Price/kg
3,365 3,273
minimal Price/kg
between 10,000 and 11,000 (according to Satellite Mass) between 7,826 and 10,000 (according to Satellite Mass)
Success ratio

[11] [12] [13] [14]

Initial descriptions

At an appearance in May 2004 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Elon Musk testified, "Long term plans call for development of a heavy lift product and even a super-heavy, if there is customer demand. [...] Ultimately, I believe $500 per pound [of payload delivered to orbit] or less is very achievable."[15]

SpaceX formally announced the Falcon 9 on 2005-09-08, describing it as being a "fully reusable heavy lift launch vehicle."[16] A Falcon 9 medium was described as being capable of launching approximately 21,000 lb (9,500 kg) to low Earth orbit, priced at $27 million per flight ($1286/lb).

Production and testing

On April 12, 2007 SpaceX announced it had completed the primary structure for its first Falcon 9 first-stage tank.[17] The tank was shipped to a SpaceX test facility in Texas for first-stage static firing validation. The first multi-engine test (with two engines connected to the first stage, firing simultaneously) was successfully completed in January 2008. On March 8, 2008, three Merlin 1C engines were fired simultaneously for the first time. The next test took place on May 29, 2008, and saw five engines firing together. The first nine-engine firing tests were conducted on July 31 and August 1, 2008; both were successful.[18][19][20] On November 22, 2008 the full Falcon 9 complement of nine engines was test fired for a full mission length (178 seconds) of the first stage.[21]

In February 2008, the plan was for the first Falcon 9/Dragon COTS Demo flight to be delayed by six months to late in the first quarter of 2009, due to the immense amount of development and regulatory work required. According to Elon Musk, the complexity of the development work and the regulatory requirements for launching from Cape Canaveral have contributed to the delay.[22]

In January 2009, Falcon 9 was first raised to the vertical position at Space Launch Complex 40 in Cape Canaveral. In October 2009, the first flight-ready first stage had a successful all-engine test fire at the company's test stand in McGregor, TX. The full stack had arrived at the launch site for integration at the beginning of February 2010. SpaceX scheduled a launch date of March 22, 2010, though they estimate anywhere between one and three months for integration and testing.[23]

In November 2009 Space X conducted the initial second stage test firing lasting forty seconds. This test involved a new test stand, a new flight stage, and it occurred as planned, on the first attempt without aborts or recycles.

On January 2, 2010, A successful full duration orbit insertion firing of the Falcon 9 second stage was conducted at the McGregor test site. SpaceX completed a full duration orbit insertion firing (329 seconds) of the integrated Falcon 9 second stage.

Thursday, February 25, 2010 SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle was set vertical at Space Launch Complex 40, Cape Canaveral.[24]

Tuesday, March 9th, SpaceX performed a Static Fire for the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Some fire and smoke were seen at the base of the rocket, leading to speculation of an engine fire. However, all components checked out, but the test executed a nominal abort at T-2 seconds due to a failure in the spin-start system. This system is designed to pump high pressure helium from the launch pad into the first stage turbopumps to get them spinning in preparation for launch. Subsequent review showed that the failure point was a valve that didn't receive a command to open. As the problem was with the pad and not with the rocket itself, it didn't occur at the McGregor test site, which didn't have the same valve setup. No damage was sustained by the vehicle or the test pad and the fire and smoke were the result of normal burnoff from the liquid oxygen and fuel mix present in the system prior to launch. All vehicle systems leading up to the abort performed as expected and no additional issues were noted that needed addressing. A subsequent test on March 13 was successful in firing the nine first stage engines for 3.5 seconds.[25]

Delays since March 13th have been mainly attributed to review of the Falcon 9 flight termination system by the Air Force.

On June 1st, SpaceX announced on their update page that they had completed testing of the FTS and all results were nominal, thus they were expecting formal approval in time to launch on June 4th.

Scheduled launches

According to the USAF, which operates the Eastern Range, the first Falcon 9 launch was due to take place no earlier than November 29, 2009.[26] The launch was later moved to February 9, 2010, and eventually rescheduled for no earlier than March 2010. Launch dates were set for Feb. 9, March 3, March 8 and March 22, April 12, May 16, May 23, May 27 all rescheduled to the current launch date of June 4, 2010.[2]

(Dates provided by the SpaceX Launch Manifest are "target" dates for vehicle arrival at launch site)

  • Q4 2009 (arrival at launch site): Demonstration flight of Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral.[27] Launch is planned on June 4, 2010.[2][28][29] Flight will carry a Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit as a payload.
  • 2010: Demo flight 1 of Falcon 9/Dragon for NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.[27][30] The flight will also carry two cubesats as part of the NRO's colony program.[31] Launch was expected in Q1 2010[32]
  • 2010: Demo flight 2 of Falcon 9/Dragon for NASA COTS program,[27] 2nd stage becomes a rendezvous target for the Dragon capsule (per SpaceX manifest)[27]
  • 2010: Demo flight 3 of Falcon 9/Dragon for NASA COTS program,[27] demonstration of cargo delivery to the International Space Station (per SpaceX manifest)[27]
  • 2011: MDA Corporation payload on Falcon 9[27][30]
  • 2011: Resupply mission 1 for NASA COTS program,[27] cargo delivery to the International Space Station (per SpaceX manifest)[27]
  • 2011: Resupply mission 2 for NASA COTS program,[27] cargo delivery to the International Space Station (per SpaceX manifest)[27]
  • 2012: DragonLab Mission 1. Non-COTS private mission of the Falcon 9 and Dragon spaceship - payload not yet public (per SpaceX manifest)[27]

There are twelve total Falcon 9 resupply missions contracted to the ISS between 2010 and 2015.[27]

On March 15, 2010, SpaceX announced that they had signed an agreement to launch a Space Systems/Loral-built satellite on a Falcon 9, “as early as 2012.”[33]

Comparable rockets

These rockets are all heavy lift launch vehicles (over 14,000 kg to LEO and over 5,000 kg to GTO). Most of them use liquid oxygen with liquid hydrogen or kerosene.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "Launch Cost Falcon 9". SpaceX.
  2. ^ a b c d "Detailed Mission Data - Falcon-9 ELV First Flight Demonstration". Mission Set Database. NASA GSFC. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
  3. ^ SpaceX (March 10, 2009). "SpaceX Falcon 9 Upper Stage Engine Successfully Completes Full Mission Duration Firing". Press release.
  4. ^ a b Musk ambition: SpaceX aim for fully reusable Falcon 9,, 2009-01-12, accessed 2010-06-03. E. Musk Quotation: "By flight six we think it’s highly likely we’ll recover the first stage, and when we get it back we’ll see what survived through re-entry, and what got fried, and carry on with the process. ... That’s just to make the first stage reusable, it’ll be even harder with the second stage – which has got to have a full heatshield, it’ll have to have deorbit propulsion and communication."
  5. ^ "Next Launch". Patrick Air Force Base. Retrieved 31 May 2010.
  6. ^ Clark, Stephen (February 20, 2010). "Falcon 9 rocket will spend next week at launch pad". Spaceflight Now.
  7. ^ Peterson, Patrick (February 23, 2010). "SpaceX prepares to let Falcon fly from Cape". Florida Today.
  8. ^ a b c d e "Falcon 9 Overview". SpaceX. 08 May 2010.
  9. ^ Mission Status Center, June 2, 2010, 1905 GMT, [SpaceflightNow]], accessed 2010-06-02, Quotation: "The flanges will link the rocket with ground storage tanks containing liquid oxygen, kerosene fuel, helium, gaserous nitrogen and the first stage ignitor source called triethylaluminum-triethylborane, better known as TEA-TAB."
  10. ^ a b SpaceX hopes to supply ISS with new Falcon 9 heavy launcher, Flight International, September 13, 2005, accessed 2010-06-03.
  11. ^ "SpaceX Falcon Data Sheet". Space Launch Report. 5 July 2007.
  12. ^ "Monster Progress Update (Mostly Falcon 9)". SpaceX. 17 August 2007.
  13. ^ "Falcon 1 Overview". SpaceX. 28 September 2007.
  14. ^ "Falcon 9 Heavy Overview". SpaceX. Retrieved 28 May 2010.
  15. ^ Testimony of Elon Musk (May 5, 2004). "Space Shuttle and the Future of Space Launch Vehicles". U.S. Senate.
  16. ^ SpaceX (2005-09-08). "SpaceX Announces the Falcon 9 Fully Reusable Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle". Press release.
  17. ^ Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (2007-04-11). "SpaceX Completes Primary Structure of the Falcon 9 First Stage Tank". Press release.
  18. ^ "SpaceX: First nine engine firing of its Falcon 9". NASA Spaceflight. August 02, 2008.
  19. ^ SpaceX (18 January 2008). "SpaceX Conducts First Multi-Engine Firing of Falcon 9 Rocket". Press release.
  20. ^ SpaceX (27 March 2008). "SpaceX conducts first Three-Engine firing of Falcon 9 rocket". Press release.
  21. ^ SpaceX (November 23, 2008). "SpaceX successfully conducts full mission-length firing of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle". Press release.
  22. ^ Rob Coppinger (2008-02-27). "SpaceX Falcon 9 maiden flight delayed by six months to late Q1 2009". Flight Global.
  23. ^ ""SpaceX announces Falcon 9 assembly underway at the Cape". Orlando Sentinel. 11 Feb 2010.
  24. ^ ""Space X Website".
  25. ^ ""universe today".
  26. ^ "Air Force: SpaceX's Falcon 9 first launch planned for Nov 29". Orlando Sentinel. Sep 22, 2009.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Launch Manifest". SpaceX. 2009. Retrieved 2010-03-01.
  28. ^ Clark, Stephen (February 20, 2010). "Falcon 9 rocket will spend next week at launch pad". Retrieved February 21, 2010.
  29. ^ "Elon Musk: SpaceX Falcon 9’s maiden launch just “months” away". Orlando Sentinel. 2009-01-05. Retrieved 2010-01-06.
  30. ^ a b NASA, SpaceX (2006) (PDF). Space Act Agreement Between National Aeronautics And Space Administration And Space Explorations Technologies Corp. For Commercial Orbital Transport Services Demonstration (COTS). Retrieved 2007-11-22.
  31. ^ "NRO Taps Boeing for Next Batch of Cubesats". Space News. 2010-04-08. Retrieved 2010-04-12.
  32. ^ "COTS Status Update & Crew Capabilities" (PDF). SpaceX. 2009-06-17. Retrieved 2009-09-21.
  33. ^

External links

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