SpaceX launches Falcon 9 v1.1, preps for reusable boost stage

March 28, 2016 – 06:30 am

The new engines and their altered configuration on the Falcon 9 v1.1.


Earlier today, SpaceX successfully sent an upgraded version of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle into space, putting a Canadian science platform and three smaller satellites into orbit. However, the launch was mostly interesting because of what happened after the payload was released. For the first time, the Falcon 9's main stage performed a controlled burn that safely brought it back into the atmosphere.

"It was a great day, and we accomplished all our objectives successfully, " SpaceX founder Elon Musk said during a press call this afternoon. Communications had been established with all the satellites that were taken to orbit. The primary payload was Canada's CASSIOPE, which includes a set of environmental sensors linked to a test communication platform. The other three payloads included two university payloads and a small CubeSat.

Normally, for a launch like this, the payloads are where the action is. But today's was substantially different, involving an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 booster. The new rocket features the Merlin 1D engine, which delivers more thrust and is easier to manufacture. The nine Merlin engines on the booster have also been rearranged, going from a grid-like formation to one where a circle of eight surrounds a central engine. The v1.1 is taller than its predecessor and features a larger fairing to hold its payload (the new one is five meters, roughly 16.5 feet, in diameter).

Perhaps more significantly, v1.1 is set up so that SpaceX can have it back. The company has been using a testbed called Grasshopper to explore controlled landings of the rocket. Today's flight involved tests of a necessary counterpart: getting the boost stage from its launch trajectory back into the atmosphere in a controlled manner. After the second stage separated today, the boost stage reversed its orientation and fired some of its engines to slow its flight, allowing it to undergo reentry without a problem. Musk said that, upon reentry, boost phases "normally explode due to extreme forces."


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