CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Building on its experience setting up a space launch complex in Florida, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is looking to begin operations in its home state this month, with a debut demonstration flight of an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket.
Privately owned SpaceX planned to conduct a static-test firing of the rocket’s new Merlin 1D engines the weekend of Sept. 7-8, the last major hurdle before a launch attempt could be made as early as a week or two later, founder and chief executive Elon Musk told SpaceNews. At press time, a NASA manifest had the launch slated for Sept. 14.
The flight would be Falcon 9’s first from a newly refurbished launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
“We’re being, as usual, extremely paranoid about the launch and trying to do everything we possibly can to improve the probability of success, but this is a new version of Falcon 9,” Musk said.
The rocket’s propellant tanks are 60 percent longer than those on the company’s five previous Falcon 9 boosters, all launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here. Three of those rockets carried Dragon cargo capsules to the international space station for NASA. Two others were test flights.
The extension, which also increased the rocket’s weight and thrust by 60 percent and made it more susceptible to bending during flight, is the most visible of several upgrades intended to increase the booster’s lift capacity and simplify operations.
In addition to a new 5-meter payload fairing, the rocket has upgraded avionics and software as well as a new stage-separation system that cuts the number of attachment points from 12 to three.
“It’s ultimately an improvement in reliability, but it is a new system,” Musk said.
Because it is a demonstration mission, SpaceX offered launch services at a cut-rate price, Musk said. MDA Corp. of Canada bought the ride for its 500-kilogram Cassiope spacecraft, built in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency and Technology Partnerships Canada.
MDA originally contracted with SpaceX to launch Cassiope on Falcon 1, a smaller, cheaper rocket that was retired in 2009 after five flights. However, SpaceX announced in 2006 that it would launch Cassiope on a Falcon 9 instead.
“Cassiope paid a tiny fraction of the price for the right to be on the demonstration flight. This is essentially a development flight for the rocket. It’s not an operational flight,” Musk said.
“Cassiope is a very small satellite. It takes up just a tiny fraction of the volume of the fairing. They paid, I think, maybe 20 percent of the normal price of the mission,” he added.
A trio of secondary payloads — including a privately funded cubesat Earth science mission and two university payloads — also will be aboard.
Once the payloads are put into orbit, SpaceX may try to restart the rocket’s upper-stage motor, depending on how much fuel is left. Also on tap is a highly experimental restart of the Falcon’s boost stage to slow its crash landing into the sea.
“Just before we hit the ocean, we’re going to relight the engine and see if we can mitigate the landing velocity to the point where the stage could potentially be recovered, but I give this maybe a 10 percent chance of success,” Musk said.
In a related program called Grasshopper, SpaceX has been developing a booster stage that can fly itself back to a launch pad.
“We’ve never attempted to land Grasshopper on water. We don’t know if the radar system will detect the water surface level accurately. We don’t know all sorts of things, so I really give it a very tiny chance of success. But we’re going to see what data we can learn,” Musk said.
Eventually, Musk hopes to outfit the Falcon rockets with landing legs and offer a discount launch service on used rockets.
“Ultimately, I think we could see a drop in cost per launch of 25 percent or more, just from reuse of the boost stage,” he said.
Following the Falcon 9 v1.1 flight from California, SpaceX plans to return to Florida for its first commercial mission, an SES World Skies communications satellite.
NASA, which has a contract with SpaceX for 10 more cargo runs to the station, wants the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket to fly two or three times before it is used to launch an enhanced Dragon capsule slated to fly on the next resupply mission, space station program manager Mike Suffredini said. A NASA manifest shows Dragon’s next cargo run occurring between Jan. 17 and Feb. 16.