SpaceX launched an upgraded, more powerful version of its Falcon 9 rocket Sunday — a booster the company hopes will someday carry astronauts to the space station — placing a modest Canadian science satellite into orbit along with five smaller research payloads.
The Falcon 9 version 1.1 features more powerful engines, a longer first stage to accommodate larger propellant tanks, a new payload fairing and a triply redundant flight computer system, improvements intended to boost the rocket’s payload capability while improving safety and reliability.
The 224-foot-tall rocket also featured simplified stage attachment mechanisms, a new circular engine arrangement for the first stage and a beefed up first stage heat shield. The company eventually hopes to recover spent stages for refurbishment and reuse.
The upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 has engines that are 60 percent more powerful than previous versions, longer fuel tanks, new avionics, new software and other features intended to boost lift capacity and simplify operations for commercial service.
Privately owned SpaceX has contracts for more than 50 launches of its new Falcon 9 and planned Falcon Heavy rockets.
Ten of those missions are to fly cargo to the International Space Station for NASA. The other customers are non-U.S. government agencies and commercial satellite operators.
We’re standing by for word on separation of the mission’s six passengers and the outcome of the first stage re-entry and splashdown experiment.
The Cassiope team reports the six-sided satellite had a nominal separation and is healthy in orbit following its first ground station pass over Antarctica.
Falcon 9 upgrades and mission outline
The v1.1 modifications start at the base of the rocket where the new engines are arranged in a circular “octaweb” pattern with eight powerplants surrounding a central engine. The earlier version had the engines arranged in a square 3-by-3 arrangement, requiring aerodynamic panels around the base of the rocket.
In the new version, protective panels were installed between the engines to prevent a malfunctioning engine from damaging another. The first stage also features longer propellant tanks a heat shield.
For the initial test flight, engineers planned to restart the first stage engines as it fell back to Earth to slow it down before plunging back into the thick lower atmosphere. The stage was not designed to be recovered, but Musk plans to collect data on every flight to perfect an eventual recovery system.
“I give pretty low odds of this recovery working on this flight,” Musk told Spaceflight Now. “The point of this mission is demonstrating the ascent of the crewed version of the Falcon 9.”
The v1.1 version of the Falcon 9 is the company’s first to feature a payload fairing that can encapsulate large satellites. The fairing separated and fell away as planned just after the second stage ignited.
Another major upgrade was a triply redundant flight computer running new software. Musk said the new computer system was extremely robust.
“You could put a bullet hole in any one of the avionics boxes and it would just keep flying,” Musk told Spaceflight Now.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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