Fri. Feb 3rd, 2023
The Falcon 9 rocket that launched the Iridium satellites landed on January 14, 2017.
Enlarge / The Falcon 9 rocket that launched the Iridium satellites landed on January 14, 2017.

SpaceX

After a successful return to flight on Jan. 14, SpaceX will make its next launch from Cape Canaveral no earlier than Jan. 30. With this mission from a new platform at Launch Complex 39A, SpaceX will launch the EchoStar 23 communications satellite into geostationary orbit.

This is a heavy satellite, weighing 5.5 tons, and getting it to about 40,000 kilometers from Earth’s surface would require virtually all of the lifting capacity of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. This would leave almost no propellant for the Falcon 9 rocket to fire its engines to slow down, make a controlled descent through Earth’s atmosphere and attempt a difficult landing on a drone ship.

On Saturday, in response to a question on Twitter, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk confirmed that the upcoming EchoStar launch will therefore indeed be expendable. “Future flights will be on Falcon Heavy or the upgraded Falcon 9,” he added.

In other words, in the future, such heavy payloads will either be launched on the more powerful Falcon Heavy (consisting of three Falcon 9 cores, designed for reentry), or a slightly more powerful variant of the Falcon 9 rocket. While SpaceX may launch one or two more expendable rockets, Musk says the plan is to launch everything on reusable boosters.

Falcon 9, Block 5

A few minutes later, Musk worked out on the “upgraded Falcon 9” missile, saying that “Block 5 is the latest upgrade to the Falcon architecture. Significantly improves performance and ease of reusability. Flying by year end.” In this comment are some important tidbits about the final version of the Falcon 9 rocket, the company’s workhorse.

In many ways, SpaceX behaved more like a start-up company than a traditional aerospace company, and as such it has continually tinkered with the design of the Falcon 9, trying to improve its performance. Unofficially, there have been at least four versions of the Falcon 9 booster: the Falcon 9 v1.0, Falcon 9 v1.1, Falcon 9R v1.1, and Falcon 9 Full Thrust. The latter variant first flew in December 2015 and included an updated Merlin-1D rocket engine and used cooled, compressed propellant. Combined, the rocket and propellant add about 30 percent to the lift performance of the previous Falcon 9.

But now SpaceX seems to be close to maximizing the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket. Musk confirmed that SpaceX will make another major improvement to its Falcon 9 rocket, which he calls “Block 5.” In a Reddit AMA in late 2016, he gave some more details about this Block 5 version, saying it will improve performance (enough so a launch like EchoStar 23 could attempt a landing) and would be designed for easy reuse.

Easy to reuse?

This last point is potentially significant, given that one of SpaceX’s main goals in the near term is to simplify the reuse of its rockets. With seven booster landings of the first stage at sea and on land, SpaceX has now shown that it can bring rockets home. The big question remains whether it has the capacity to refurbish those missiles in a timely and cost-effective manner before they are used again.

There are many rumors in the space community about how SpaceX has struggled to get its existing, returned rockets ready for flight. Indeed, it has now been 13 months since the first landing and the company is at least a month away from flying a booster again, which it plans to do with the launch of the SES-10 communications satellite.

It now seems likely that SpaceX will fly the landed boosters it currently has at most once or twice before retiring, rather than multiple times. While the company has not commented on the issues with the engines, booster structure or composite materials that have challenged their efforts to re-fly the first Falcon 9 stages, Musk seems confident that changes to the Block 5 version of the rocket will will solve problems. issue. “I think the F9 boosters can be used almost indefinitely as long as there is scheduled maintenance and careful inspections,” he said in his AMA.

By akfire1

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