WASHINGTON – SpaceX plans to inaugurate its new, more-powerful Falcon 9 rocket this summer, using the same Merlin 1D engine with a modified fuel mix and other changes to extend the company’s planned reuse of the first stage to cover all SpaceX launches, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said.
In March 16 and 17 appearances at the Satellite 2015 conference here, Shotwell said the new-version Falcon 9, which has yet to be named, will be about 30 percent more powerful than the rocket’s current version.
Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s plans to reuse its Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage have been carried out so far by attempted landings in the ocean and on an unmanned ocean barge following launches into low Earth orbit.
The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket needs more power to perform the same maneuver after a launch carrying a telecommunications satellite to geostationary orbit 36, 000 kilometers over the equator, thus the need for the upgraded engine.
Shotwell said the company stopped full qualification of the Merlin 1D engine’s capabilities to keep the first Falcon 9 v1.1 flights on schedule. But the qualification work has continued.
“We’ve gone back and gotten that performance on the engine to place it on the vehicle, ” Shotwell said. “So we’ve got a higher-thrust engine. We’ve finished development on that and are going into qual [qualification testing]. What we’re also doing is modifying the structure a little bit.”
As it adopts the new-version Falcon 9 and prepares for the inaugural flight — still scheduled for late this year — of its Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX wants to limit its production line to two versions of the rocket’s core.
“Falcon Heavy is two different cores — the inner core and the two side sticks, ” Shotwell said. “The new Falcon 9 will basically be a Falcon Heavy side booster. So we’re building [only two different] cores to make sure we don’t have a bunch of configurations around the factory so we can streamline operations and hit a launch cadence of one or two a month from every launch site we have.”
The upgraded Falcon 9, Shotwell said, will make its inaugural flight this summer. Customer SES of Luxembourg has said it is willing to be the first customer for the launch of a 5, 300-kilogram telecommunications satellite to geostationary orbit.
Shotwell said the new-version Falcon 9 will not force the company to begin a lengthy new process of certifying the vehicle with NASA and the U.S. Defense Department to carry those agencies’ high-value payloads.
The current Falcon 9 v1.1 is in the middle of a U.S. government certification process that began about a year ago and is expected to be finished by midyear. Once that is completed, further rocket enhancements will be treated as modifications not requiring the same detailed review by the government agencies.
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