SpaceX Upgrades Falcon 9 FTW!

  • Sep 30, 2013 11:17am GMT

Sunday morning SpaceX successfully launched their upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California and all its payloads achieved their proper orbits. The launch was even visible from my house in Lancaster, California. We were watching the webcast live on the big screen (thank you Google Chromecast...) and then walked outside to see the rocket clear the hills to the west and then leave a short, white southern-slanting plume before becoming just a single, rising white dot.

This was SpaceX's first launch from California, all previous Falcon 9 launches have been from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Because the Canadian CASSIOPE mission uses a "polar" orbit (meaning they want to orbit over the poles with their environmental sensor suite) it works best to launch from Vandenberg where you launch over water to the south (yes, California curves that much). When you want to fly more-or-less around the equator (like the Shuttles did) it works best to launch with the spin of the Earth at your back/to the east and Florida gives a lot of over-water launching to the east. (Americans like to launch rockets over water so we don't drop stages or boosters on someone's house).

This marks the sixth SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 and the first launch of a Falcon 9 with a payload faring at the top (previous flights lifted Dragon capsules to practice and then take cargo to the International Space Station for NASA). The faring is 17 feet (5.2 m) in diameter and 43 feet tall (13.1 m)– large enough to hold a city bus (as Kiko Dontchev helpfully pointed out during the webcast).

It also marks the first use of the more powerful Merlin 1D rocket engines. The Falcon 9 uses 9 of them (hence the name) now configured in what they are calling an "Octoweb"- basically eight engines in a circle with one in the middle. Previously the Falcon 9 launched with the 9 Merlin 1C engines arranged in a tic-tac-toe board at the bottom of the rocket. The new configuration is meant to handle the higher thrust better and to streamline manufacturing processes. The higher thrust means that the Falcon 9 v1.1 can take 13,150 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) where the Falcon 9 v1.0 took 8,500-9,000 kg to LEO.

But what will really bake your noodle is that Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, wants to teach his rockets to fly home when they are done boosting their payloads to orbit so that they can be re-used rather than being disposable like all conventional rockets are today. This involves re-lighting the engines and coming home and touching down vertically. SpaceX has been testing vertical landing with their Grasshopper vehicle in McGregor, Texas and on Sunday's launch did their first-ever test of re-firing the 1st stage's engines to see if they could control it. They did not expect to recover it, just to see what they could learn about what it would take to do it.

According to Musk's tweets, they were able to relight the engine twice "(supersonic retro & landing), but spun up due to aero torque, so fuel centrifuged & we flamed out" I take that to mean that the tank was spinning so the fuel sloshed up and stopped feeding the rocket engine and they "flamed" out- but still a very cool test. Elon adds in his next tweet, "Between this flight & Grasshopper tests, I think we now have all the pieces of the puzzle to bring the rocket back home."