Upgraded Falcon 9 May Need Additional Certification

November 23, 2016 – 01:35 pm

An optimized Merlin 1D engine and other enhancements to the Falcon 9 v1.1 will give (SpaceX) the ability to lift commercial communications satellites to orbit while continuing to develop the rocket’s reusable core stage.

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, says the improvements include a 15% boost in thrust for the rocket’s nine core-stage engines, as well as super-chilled propellant and a 10% increase in the volume of the upper-stage tank, according to Musk’s Twitter feed.

Such performance improvements would allow the company to continue innovating while drawing revenue from a growing backlog of commercial missions.

However, if the design changes are significant, they could prevent SpaceX from lifting sensitive civil and military payloads on the retooled Falcon 9 without subjecting it to further scrutiny beyond U.S. Air Force and launch-vehicle certification efforts already underway.

Although the agencies maintain separate protocols for certifying new launcher entrants for government missions, they share findings and assessments throughout the process. For both, certification is meant to ensure commercial service providers can adhere to standards and processes established over decades of experience and honed in the 1990s after a series of costly launch failures.

Both agencies expect to complete their respective Falcon 9 certification efforts mid-year, though says once the vehicle is certified to launch riskier missions, in the future it does not plan to fly science payloads on SpaceX launchers utilizing refurbished Falcon 9 cores.

“Our current Category 2 certification effort assumes the use of an un-refurbished core stage, ” says NASA spokesman Joshua Buck, referring to the ongoing effort to certify the Falcon 9 to launch Earth-observation spacecraft, starting with the Jason-3 ocean altimetry mission set to lift off in June from Vandenberg AFB, California.

For now, NASA says it is unaware of any proposed changes to the current Falcon 9 vehicle and that Jason-3 is not the inaugural customer for an upgraded rocket. Instead, the first spacecraft to fly on the revamped Falcon 9 will be SES-9, a communications satellite built for commercial fleet operator SES, an early backer of SpaceX. Although the conservative Luxembourg-based company showed initial reluctance to fly on the inaugural Falcon 9 mission, CEO Karim Michel Sabbagh has since said the launch will go forward, ideally in the second quarter of 2015, if not the third.

A year ago Musk told Aviation Week he planned no major improvements to the Falcon 9, though he said SpaceX would be “chilling the propellant to densify it, to get more propellant load for the given volume.” The change would enable the rocket to carry more fuel, even with heavier payloads, enabling the core stage to return to Earth for a controlled landing on a SpaceX drone-barge parked in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

The downside of such changes, however, is that they could require additional government work to certify an upgraded Falcon 9, if SpaceX seeks it.

Source: aviationweek.com

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