Enhanced Falcon 9 Booster Raises Excitement, Concern, As Return to Flight Date Nears

The performance enhancements which have enabled the Falcon 9 v1.2 (internally known as the Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust) are expected to support larger payloads to orbit and will also permit the landing of the first-stage hardware on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). Photo Credit: SpaceX

The performance enhancements which have enabled the Falcon 9 v1.2 (internally known as the Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust) are expected to support larger payloads to orbit and will also permit the landing of the first-stage hardware on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). Photo Credit: SpaceX

Three months after the catastrophic loss of its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-7 Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS)—which appeared to have fallen victim to a failed helium tank strut, provided by an external supplier—SpaceX stands ready to resume launches of its workhorse Falcon 9, albeit in a heavily modified form, perhaps as soon as mid-November. Last week, a successful 15-second static firing of the upgraded “Merlin 1D+” engines, destined for the Falcon 9 v1.2 (internally known as the “Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust”) variant of the vehicle, shook the ground of the new Falcon Booster Test Stand at SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas, for the first time. Although SpaceX previously stressed that no provisional date had been released for the Falcon 9’s Return to Flight (RTF) mission, recent comments by CEO Elon Musk in Berlin indicate that another launch might be attempted within six to eight weeks.

The flight—which will likely transport the SES-9 communications satellite into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) on behalf of the Luxembourg-headquartered SES satellite services provider and operator—is expected to use the v1.2, whose first-stage Merlin 1D+ and second-stage Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engines will run at their full, 100-percent power level. This is in contrast to the 80 percent of rated performance seen on previous v1.1 missions. A further 13 percent of additional performance will be accrued through a range of structural enhancements to the vehicle’s airframe and a process of “densifying” and thereby increasing the liquid oxygen propellant load. All told, this is expected to yield a performance “gain” of 33 percent over the earlier v1.1.

The nine plumes of the Merlin 1D engines flare as the CRS-7 vehicle disintegrates on 28 June. The maiden voyage of the Falcon 9 v1.2 ("Full Thrust"), carrying the SES-9 payload, was scheduled to follow CRS-7 in July 2015. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

The nine plumes of the Merlin 1D engines flare as the CRS-7 vehicle disintegrates on 28 June. The maiden voyage of the Falcon 9 v1.2 (“Full Thrust”), carrying the SES-9 payload, was scheduled to follow CRS-7 in July 2015. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

The loss of CRS-7 on 28 June broke a chain of 13 successful missions for the v1.1 between the launch of Canada’s CASSIOPE scientific satellite in September 2013 and the CRS-5 Dragon cargo flight in April 2015. During those 19 months, SpaceX delivered its first half-dozen payloads into GTO, together with one satellite into polar orbit, four ISS-bound Dragons into low-Earth orbit, and also accomplished its maiden foray to the L1 Lagrange Point, some 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) beyond Earth. Equipped with nine Merlin 1D engines on its first stage, the v1.1 offered a 200,000-pound (90,700-kg) increased propulsive yield over the 1.1-million-pound (503,000-kg) first-stage output of the Merlin 1C engines of its predecessor, the v1.0. Fueled by a mixture of liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1,” the Merlin 1D was extensively tested during the summer of 2012 and its 1.3-million-pound (590,000-kg) first-stage thrust significantly raised the bar for SpaceX, by enabling a 27-percent payload hike to low-Earth orbit and a somewhat smaller increase to GTO.

Also factored into the v1.1 and subsequent v1.2 designs was the much-publicized capability to soft-land its first-stage hardware on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic Ocean, as part of SpaceX’s ongoing effort to eventually confer reusability on its vehicles. This capability was afforded by three engine firings toward the end of first-stage flight: an initial “Boost-Back” to adjust its impact point, push it “upward” and redirect it towards its launch site, followed by a decelerating “Supersonic Retro-Propulsion” maneuver and finally a “Landing” burn to alight on the ASDS at a smooth 4.5 mph (7.2 km/h). In support of this goal, a series of “controlled oceanic touchdowns” in April, July, and September 2014 were followed with mixed fortune earlier this year, when two attempts were made to land on the ASDS. The first reached the deck, but impacted hard at a 45-degree angle and exploded, whilst the second landed with excessive lateral velocity and toppled over upon impact.

By this point, and even with only a relatively small number of v1.1 vehicles actually having flown, the effort to bring an enhanced Falcon—variously described as the “v1.2” or the “Full Thrust” (FT)—to operational status steadily gained momentum. It is understood that the v1.1 utilized the Merlin 1D engine at 80 percent of its rated capability, with 20 percent held in reserve, in order to afford maximum flexibility for the payload to achieve its correct orbital location. In contrast, the v1.2/FT centers around an upgraded “Merlin 1D+” engine, which reportedly generates 1.53 million pounds (694,000 kg) of thrust at liftoff, effectively operating at “full” (100-percent) capacity. This will increase to around 1.7 million pounds (771,100 kg) as the vehicle travels higher into the rarefied upper atmosphere. Similarly, the Merlin 1D Vacuum engine of the second stage will see a corresponding increase in propulsive yield from 180,000 pounds (81,600 kg) in the v1.1 to 210,000 pounds (95,250 kg) in the v1.2/FT. According to a source close to SpaceX, “FT” is the internal code name for calculating the Merlin 1D’s output at 100 percent, adding that “this improves the Falcon 9’s performance by 20 percent, although this “improvement” was not really new: it was always there, but never utilized.” At the time of the CRS-7 failure, it is understood that SpaceX intended to stage its first v1.2/FT launch in July 2015, delivering SES-9 to GTO.

However, the 20-percent performance hike achieved by throttling the engines from their 80-percent to 100-percent power levels has been expanded yet further to reach an overall 33-percent “performance gain” over the v1.1. This gain has been met in part through structural enhancements to the vehicle’s airframe, including a 10-percent increase in propellant tank volumes, a lengthened second stage with extended Merlin 1D Vacuum engine, upgraded landing legs and grid fins, an improved “Octaweb” support structure for the first-stage engine suite, a strengthened “interstage” between the two stages, and a central “pusher” to ensure a smooth stage-separation process. All told, these enhancements increase the height of the v1.2/FT vehicle to 229.6 feet (70 meters), about 5.6 feet (1.6 meters) taller than the v1.1.

The Merlin-1D burns hot and hard at SpaceX's Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. An uprated version of the engine, known as the "Merlin 1D+", will fly on the Return to Flight (RTF) mission, perhaps as soon as mid-November. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Merlin-1D burns hot and hard at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. An uprated version of the engine, known as the “Merlin 1D+”, will fly on the Return to Flight (RTF) mission, perhaps as soon as mid-November. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Additionally, the 33-percent performance gain has been met through “super-cooling” the liquid oxygen load—in what Musk described as “deep cryo oxygen”—below its normal saturation condition, in order to increase its density and permit the carriage of a larger load of propellants in the Falcon 9’s tanks. “Propellant densification,” noted engineers Ke Nguyen and Timothy Knowles in an American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) paper, “is one of the key technologies needed to meet the challenges of future reusable launch vehicles.” The densification process, AmericaSpace understands, has required the installation of specialized cooling stations at SpaceX’s dedicated Falcon 9 pads of Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The additional performance gained from the structural modifications and the liquid oxygen densification is expected to be of assistance to SpaceX at it aims to deliver larger and heavier communications satellites to GTO and seeks lucrative Department of Defense contracts for major classified payloads. However, this stance has caused a measure of consternation and serious doubts have been raised over the frequency of major enhancements to SpaceX’s vehicles in a relatively short span of time. “The launch industry tends to be very conservative,” a Parabolic Arc article highlighted last July. “Changes are made very carefully and only after thorough testing. Experience has shown that while upgrades can improve a rocket’s performance, they can also cause problems.” The article quoted Gen. William Shelton, former commander of Air Force Space Command, who expressed concern that the upcoming v1.2/FT—which is believed to be the vehicle that SpaceX will use to bid for Department of Defense contracts—has yet to complete a single mission, much less pass through a full certification process. “In other words, the Air Force will be launching on yet another version of the Falcon 9, with an even shorter launch history than the one that just failed,” Parabolic Arc noted. “That can be handled with some additional certification work. However, it’s an unnerving prospect for an organization whose primary focus is on mission assurance, not cost.”

Notwithstanding these concerns, Musk expects that the v1.2/FT improvements will allow SpaceX to soft-land its first-stage hardware on the ASDS, even during high-energy launches to the 22,300-mile (35,900-km) altitude of GTO. Previously, only comparatively low-energy launches to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) had seen soft-landing attempts, although SpaceX originally intended to bring the first stage from NASA’s L1-bound Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) back to the ASDS in February 2015, but was ultimately thwarted by rough seas. “It’s always a trade-off between height and payload weight when the capacity is fixed,” AmericaSpace was told by a source close to SpaceX. “The higher the orbit, the less weight could get up there, with any given thrust capacity. LEO is relatively close, compared to GTO, so SpaceX was able to save some of the liquid oxygen for the landing attempts. With GTO, they needed to launch as high as possible and did not want to risk trying to save liquid oxygen for the landing attempts, as that could jeopardize their ability to get a client’s satellite as high as it needed to get.”

The weeks ahead are expected to see significant progress as SpaceX readies for an upcoming salvo of launches. The original CRS contract with NASA, signed back in December 2008, calls for 12 dedicated ISS cargo missions, of which six have been satisfactorily completed, and major payloads destined to fly aboard future Dragons include the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) and the second International Docking Adapter (IDA-2). There also exists a backlog of commercial payloads—including 11 Orbcomm OG-2 satellites—and NASA’s Jason-3 ocean surface topography mission, with the latter expected to ride an old-style v1.1, due to its LEO destination.


VIDEO: First static fire of the upgraded Falcon 9’s first stage

 

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Missions » ISS » COTS » CRS-7 » Missions » ISS » COTS » CRS-8 » Missions » SES » SES-9 »

32 comments to Enhanced Falcon 9 Booster Raises Excitement, Concern, As Return to Flight Date Nears

  • Bryan

    First sentence in your article is wrong. It was the O2 tank of the second stage, not first.

  • Chris

    “which appeared to have fallen victim to a failed first-stage helium tank strut, provided by an unnamed external supplier”

    You mean second-stage…

    • Luther

      “provided by an unnamed external supplier”
      You mean Boeing…

      • Joe

        Please provide your source for Boeing being the “unnamed external supplier”.

      • Arth

        The only article that I read, quite a while back, named 3 strut suppliers or whom Boeing was one. The article never stated which supplier supplied the faulty struts. I don’t think Boeing would sabotage a U.S. gov sponsored launch to the ISS. Especially, one carrying a piece of equipment that they built(IDA-1). That would be domestic terrorism.

      • Joe

        While we are on the subject the following information is interesting.

        http://www.parabolicarc.com/2015/07/07/spacex-charts-path-reliability/

        From the article (written before SpaceX stated that the problem was a malfunction associated with the Helium tanks):

        (1) “SpaceX even made changes to the launch vehicle during Falcon 9 v.1.1’s brief flight history. Last year, for example, the company decided to bring the production of helium bottles used to pressurize the liquid oxygen (LOX) tanks in house. Previously, the bottles had been supplied by an outside contractor.”

        (2) “Whatever the reason for the change, SpaceX ended up experiencing helium leaks that caused launch delays in 2014 [Orbcomm’s Elusive Falcon 9 Launch Date TBD] and 2015 [SpaceX Puts Off Next Falcon 9 Launch]. The helium problems were one of the reasons SpaceX conducted only six launches in 2014, far short of the 12 the company had hoped to accomplish.”

        So SpaceX took over in house production of the Helium tanks and began having a series of problems with them leading up to the CRS-7 explosion.

        But when it investigated itself, SpaceX determined that the fault lay with some unnamed supplier.

        • Arth

          Well I agree with you on the helium bottle issue. That’s the first thought that popped into my mind was a possible leak in the helium system that the inspectors missed. Maybe that’s why the return to flight was pushed back to Nov-Dec time frame. The strut could’ve been a second issue.

        • Tracy the Troll

          Joe,
          Is there absolutely no other explanation for the CRS-7 failure? Look at the delays that have occurred. Reuseability, BEAM and Manned ISS crew transport. Does it seem strange to you that NASA made a $500M payment to Russians to continue ISS Crew transport into the indefinite future? Do the Russian activities in the Middle East not show what really has happened?

          • Colorado

            No…that does “not show what really has happened.” Your borderline conspiracy theory rambling shows something though.

          • Joe

            “Is there absolutely no other explanation for the CRS-7 failure?”

            Tracy,

            Due to the secretive nature of the SpaceX internal investigation it is hard to tell.

            At one point news stories indicated they were doing a comprehensive fault tree analysis of the entire Falcon 9. That is a very arduous and time consuming process and would imply there is not a high confidence level that they have identified the only problem.

            I have no idea if they are actually performing such an analysis, but if they are it is likely they will not begin flying again before next spring or summer.

            As for NASA extending it’s payments to Russia, the current administration “bet the farm” on “commercial” space and as of now the Commercial Crew schedule is slipping to the right and both cargo delivery service providers are grounded.

            Given that situation, if they wish to continue to participate in the ISS, what else can they do?

            • Tracy the Troll

              Joe,

              “Last week, a successful 15-second static firing of the upgraded “Merlin 1D+” engines, destined for the Falcon 9 v1.2 (internally known as the “Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust”)”….

              Why would SpaceX claim to be ready to launch in December with a new Version of the F9 that is A 33-percent performance gain over the previous version if they were not 100% sure of the cause of the CRS-7 flight? How does SpaceX say that a faulty part failed so far below minimum test limit but the part provider goes unnamed and everybody says nothing… Why didn’t NASA, Air Force or Congress oversee the Investigation rather than have SpaceX lead the investigation and report back on their findings? (Isn’t that how the Iran nuclear deal works?)…So now we have to continue to pay with the Russians $80M a seat to the ISS and your saying we should be thankful…. But none of this seems strange to you?

              • Joe

                Tracy,

                Taking this by the numbers:

                (1) “Why would SpaceX claim to be ready to launch in December with a new Version of the F9 that is A 33-percent performance gain over the previous version if they were not 100% sure of the cause of the CRS-7 flight?”

                I gave up trying to figure out why SpaceX does anything a long time ago. Perhaps they will attempt to launch in December and hope they do not get burned again. Perhaps they will get away with it (until of course the next time).

                (2) “How does SpaceX say that a faulty part failed so far below minimum test limit but the part provider goes unnamed and everybody says nothing… Why didn’t NASA, Air Force or Congress oversee the Investigation rather than have SpaceX lead the investigation and report back on their findings?”

                Good questions, but I do not know the answers.

                (3)”(Isn’t that how the Iran nuclear deal works?)…”

                Yes.

                (4) “So now we have to continue to pay with the Russians $80M a seat to the ISS and your saying we should be thankful….”

                No, I am most definitely not saying we should be “thankful”.

                (5) “But none of this seems strange to you?”

                You seem to be implying some kind of conspiracy. There is an old adage that reads something like: “Never suspect a conspiracy when incompetence will suffice as an explanation.” As reference the Iranian nuclear deal we currently have more than enough incompetence to go around.

                • Luther

                  No offense Joe but corporate sabotage is normal, it is not a conspiracy theory. This is real everyday life. I’m referring to Boeing being the supplier of the strut and not Tracy the Troll’s comments which I find to be illogical. When you are supplying a critical component and a limited quantity at that to a customer that is launching a $40M rocket (SpaceX cost) then I find it hard to believe that it was just an error by the supplier. This isn’t a faulty wooden drawer of a computer desk that is coming from China. All struts go through extensive testing before they are supplied. Therefore it’s not possible to supply a faulty strut unless done on purpose. Also if it’s just one of those things that happen in life then why would SpaceX change their supplier? Why would they not name the supplier either? Ford was quick to blame Firestone tires. Boeing was quick to blame a Japanese supplier for their 787 new jet catching fire last year before realizing it was a problem with Boeing’s design and not on the manufacturing side and then all press coverage mysteriously vanished. Boeing has a lot of political power, if it didn’t you can be sure they would have been named. Lesson learned for Elon yet again, don’t rely on competitors for critical components. Hard to do in era of sophisticated technologies (Apple and Samsung relationship).

                  • Colorado

                    You are basically saying the same thing as the troll and posing a conspiracy theory. You are just using more technobabble to try and make it sound legit. Musk has the “political power” as the invisible other NASA administrator. That is why SpaceX exists and continues to peddle cheap exploding hobby rockets.

                    • Luther

                      Good and never think beyond the press releases gift wrapped for you. After all if it’s not printed in an article then it never happened. In fact anything other than what is in a press release is fiction. Anything than other than that in a newspaper is automatically a conspiracy theory.

                      BTW they only had 1 explosion after the proof of concept Falcon 1.

                      SpaceX is not cheap, they are commercially competitive and aren’t the cheapest. ISRO is the cheapest (Indian Space Research Organization). ULA is just ridiculously expensive.

                  • Joe

                    Luther,

                    No offense to you either, but I asked you for a single scintilla of evidence that Boeing was the supplier of the supposedly defective strut and you have yet to provide it. In fact you now seem to be saying that there is a vast cover-up being orchestrated.

                    Musk said in one of his rambling announcements that SpaceX did no acceptance testing and did not even require proof of certification testing from whoever the supplier was. That is sloppy work on SpaceX part, hopefully “Elon” (as you like to call him) learned that lesson.

                    As far as the “…but corporate sabotage is normal, it is not a conspiracy theory. This is real everyday life.” stuff goes you might want to detox by not watching any more Oliver Stone movies for a few months.

                    • Luther

                      Maybe you should stop watching The Care Bears and singing It’s a Wonderful World. Existing powers will play dirty and do whatever they can to hold on to as much market share as possible for as long as they possibly can.

                      I’m not denying that SpaceX didn’t do any testing on their part and that is their mistake – but that doesn’t excuse the supplier from supplying a faulty strut.

                      As for my Elon comments, I was getting at the fact that he is far too trusting given what happen between him and Henrik Fisker on the Tesla Motors side.

                    • Joe

                      Actually Luther The Care Bears are a little too intense for me. Can’t take all the graphic violence.

                      Get back when you crack the great cover-up conspiracy (you know the one where Boeing sabotaged a government launch to the ISS that destroyed an expensive piece of there own hardware – IDA-1)and can provide that scintilla of evidence that Boeing was the provider of the supposedly faulty strut.

                      Until then,

                      Have a nice evening.

                    • Luther

                      Right because Boeing will voluntarily admit that they supplied the faulty strut. You argument about IDA-1 is pointless as the damage to SpaceX is far greater. Now ULA can point to their own record of reliability compared to SpaceX’s for future mission assurance missions by the Air Force. This is worth billions future contracts. Because of the CRS-7 failure i’m sure the number of contracts open for bidding will be smaller.

                    • Joe

                      “Right because Boeing will voluntarily admit that they supplied the faulty strut.”

                      Luther,

                      Unless SpaceX is more slipshod than even I think they may be, Boeing would not have to admit anything.

                      If Boeing was a part supplier for the struts and SpaceX does any kind of quality control at all; the struts would have Part Numbers and Serial Numbers that would identity the supplier. Standard record keeping would show which strut was placed where and so the supplier of the supposedly defective strut could be easily identified.

                      Now if you must continue spinning conspiracy theories you can go get into it with Tracy the Troll (October 5, 2015 at 1:08 pm) who can tell you about how CRS-7 was shot down by the Russians with a Laser. Maybe the Russians and Boeing were in on it together and American Intelligence is part of the cover up because they have sold out to the Russians (or is it Boeing that bought them off?). ·

                      Go for it, The Truth is Out There.

                  • Arth

                    Why would SpaceX name the supplier before the investigation is completed unless you want another Orbital/AJR style fiasco? Once the FAA releases the final report, if the supplier still is not named, then you could request information from NASA & the FAA via the Freedom of Information Act.

                    • Joe

                      Good Point. If the final report names the strut as the “culprit” and lays the fault on the supplier, then the supplier should be named.

                      In the meantime, a question; it I might:

                      What is the “Orbital/AJR style fiasco” to which you refer?

                  • Tracy the Troll

                    Luther,
                    SpaceX CRS-7 was shot down by a Laser weapon by Russia. By doing so they 1) shut up musk for claiming that the US Military should be using US made Engine componets. 2) Slowed down the reusable launch design of SpaceX which is eating into Russia’s launch market share. 3) By delaying the BEAM installation on the ISS the private sector Space Station technology research is delayed as well which further limits space based systems targeting Russia. 4) Russia has sent an undeniable message to the Obama Administration that they had better NOT stop paying for seats on their rockets to ISS or else. 5) Russia has taken over control of the Mddle East because there was no retaliation for shooting down CRS-7. This is all about Money and Market Share…just plain old economics..why does no one else see the obvious?

                    • Luther

                      Lame attempt to mock me Tracy. Not that it’s even worth of a response but the video of the explosion is there for everyone to see. There was no income laser attack.

                      I’ve been usually more right than wrong in the past. There have been many cases of foul play. RIM (Blackberry) being targeted by the U.S. on shaky grounds for patent infringement by NTP and Good Technology. It worked in delaying RIM and keeping them occupied while Apple caught up. I was quick to point that out at the time. Also the whole Malaysian plane being shot down by a missile from Ukraine yet everyone believed it was from Russia and when the evidence starting mounting that it came from Ukraine all press coverage mysteriously vanished overnight. It goes on and on and on.

                    • Tracy the Troll

                      Luther who is mocking you? The laser blast would be milliseconds…Or you think the strut was built by Boeing and they are so powerful as to make SpaceX not name them, NASA, the Air Force and Congress not to lead the investigation and tell everybody just to move along nothing to see here…But NASA strangley contracts Russia for another 7 seats after 2017 to ISS for $500M?

  • Dennis Berube

    Goooo SpaceX, and continue to push those boundaries. Make history!!!!!!

    • Tim Andrews

      Good for SpaceX that they’ve got a customer (and that customer’s insurance underwriter) willing to take the risk on the first F9 Full Thrust launch.

      While I’ve seen a lot of SpaceX fans throwing the V1.2 name around, all I’ve heard from SpaceX is “full thrust,” leading me to suspect there’s concern over the version number impacting their certifications for the Air Force and NASA.

      I’ll be interested to see what happens in regards to certifications. Sure Atlas V and Delta IV have had their tweaks and changes over the years, but these are a lot of significant changes at once.

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