SpaceX’s long awaited first “Block 5” variant of their workhorse Falcon 9 rocket was seen making its way to the company’s testing grounds in McGregor, Texas this weekend, after being spotted by Alison Morgan and shared on Reddit by friend u/tvgenius heading eastbound on Interstate-8 in Yuma, Arizona.
Block 5 is a big deal because it represents the culmination of years of development on the Falcon 9. It’s SpaceX’s last significant update to the booster, and will incorporate many changes to allow SpaceX to refurbish and reuse the rockets much faster, and fly more missions with a single booster, all while keeping costs down.
But SpaceX has been rather quiet as to what upgrades the Block 5 DOES incorporate, so specific details are hard to come by. What we do know, is the rocket’s Merlin engines have been redesigned to provide more power and allow for up to a dozen flights per booster, instead of 2 or 3 re-flights which the current Falcon 9 “Block 4” is capable of. Not only will they improve performance, but reliability and manufacturability as well.
It’s understood too, that one significant change is the elimination of a specific center engine configuration, reducing the number of engine configurations to 2; relight and non-relight. This means the change, combined with the new Merlin Throttle Valve (or MTV), allows any engine to be modified to be a relight or non-relight engine, at least up until integration with the rocket.
“There are probably 100 or so changes on that vehicle,” said SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, early last year. Various components of the rocket have also been redesigned to endure more stress and harsher conditions, which will translate to less refurbishment, more reusability and less time between flights.
“Final Falcon 9 has a lot of minor refinements that collectively are important, but uprated thrust and improved legs are the most significant,” said Elon Musk in a previous Reddit “Ask Me Anything“.
Block 5 also represents a significant step forward towards upcoming missions flying astronauts for NASA to and from the International Space Station (ISS), which America has been waiting for since 2011 when the space shuttle fleet was retired from service. NASA awarded SpaceX a multi-billion dollar contract to fly astronauts to and from the ISS in 2014, and has strict requirements SpaceX must meet before they will certify Falcon 9 to launch human beings. Block 5 should meet them all, allowing it to become rated for human spaceflight and ending further development of the Falcon 9 in general.
“Block 5 is the last big spin on Falcon 9, and it’s largely driven by the upgrade that we needed to make for the commercial crew program, as well as national security space launch requirements,” said Shotwell last year.
We don’t know what mission the Block 5 will launch first, but there’s much speculation that it’s slated to fly the Bangabandhu-1 communications satellite for the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, as soon as this spring. AmericaSpace has been unable to confirm this yet.
Musk tweeted earlier this month, however, that Block 5 was, “set to fly in a few months“. And if history is any indication, it may not be long after arrival in Texas before the McGregor area rumbles to the roar of it test firing for the first time.
With Block 5 representing the end of Falcon 9 development, engineers at SpaceX can turn their focus to BFR development, their Mars rocket, plans for which were unveiled by Elon Musk last Sept.
SpaceX successfully launched more than a third of all their missions to date last year alone, a personal-best-beating 18, more than twice as many as it has ever previously achieved in a single calendar year. That said, 2018 is off to a strong start as well, with the maiden voyage of the long-awaited Falcon Heavy on Feb 6 and the successful delivery of the SES-16/GovSat-1 communications satellite last month, together with the secretive Zuma payload for an undisclosed U.S. Government entity, the exact fate of which will likely remain undisclosed.
As reported previously by AmericaSpace’s Ben Evans, since the first Falcon 9 launched way back in June 2010, flying in its “v1.0” configuration, SpaceX has launched a total of 48 into space. The v1.0 flew five times, wrapping up its final mission in March 2013, during which it transported three Dragon cargo ships to the ISS. With its retirement, the baton was passed to the v.1.1, powered by an upgraded Merlin 1D+ engine suite, which supported 15 missions between September 2013 and January 2016. With this version of the booster, SpaceX launched its first payloads to geostationary altitude and into deep space, and achieved successful “oceanic” splashdowns of its first-stage hardware for the first time.
Several unsuccessful attempts were made to land on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), but it was not until the arrival of the Upgraded Falcon 9 in December 2015 that first-stage hardware was safely brought back through the atmosphere to alight smoothly on either the drone ship or on Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
Stabilizing the rocket stage in flight—traveling several thousand mph at separation—has been likened to someone balancing a rubber broomstick on their hand in the middle of a fierce wind storm. After first stage engine cutoff, thrusters are triggered to flip the first stage into position for retrograde burn. Three of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines are then restarted to conduct the retrograde burn in order to reduce the booster’s velocity and place it in the correct angle to land. Once the first stage is in position and approaching its landing target, two of the three engines are shut down to end the boost-back burn.
Utilizing compressed helium to deploy its four extendable landing legs, the booster and a quartet of lattice-like hypersonic grid fins, configured in an “X-wing” layout, are then unfurled to control the rocket’s lift vector, and a final single engine burn slows it to a velocity of zero for a stable landing.
As for their next launch, SpaceX is aiming to fly into dawn on Wednesday morning, Feb. 21, targeting liftoff of their last Block-3 variant Falcon 9 to launch the 3,000 pound PAZ satellite for Spain at 6:16 a.m. PST (14:16 UTC) from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The booster is already flight-proven too, having previously launched last August’s Formosat-5 mission, but SpaceX has no intention on landing or recovering / reusing it this time. The rocket will, however, be flying PAZ enshrouded in a new upgraded fairing, presumably as part of their development work to reuse them, in addition to the first stage rockets themselves.
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