Falcon 9 in SpaceX's Cape Canaveral hangar in advance of the Orbcomm OG2 Mission 1. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force has certified the latest version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, known as the Falcon 9 Upgrade, to launch national security satellites, the Air Force said Jan. 25.

The Falcon 9 Upgrade, which made its maiden launch in December, includes increased thrust, an improved stage separation system and a stretched upper stage that can hold additional propellant.

The new certification allows SpaceX to use its most up-to-date rocket to bid to launch military and spy satellites. The Air Force is expected to put roughly four launch contracts up for bid later this year. United Launch Alliance, which uses the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, is the only other provider certified to launch so-called EELV-class national security satellites.

Last June, after a nearly two-year process, the Air Force certified a previous version of the Falcon 9 rocket known as v1.1. That version is expected to receive limited use in the future.

“The certification process provides a path for launch-service providers to demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver [national security space] satellites to orbit,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a Jan. 25 press release.  “This gives the Air Force confidence that the national security satellites will safely achieve the intended orbits with full mission capability.”

The new certification is also evidence of SMC’s efforts to work more closely with its launch providers. After the initial certification process strained the relationship between Air Force and SpaceX officials, both sides have said they have a better understanding of how the other works. The updated certification, the Air Force said, was due in part to recommendations from an independent review committee that suggested the service allow for updated technology based on demonstrated capabilities.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.