UPDATE May 10 @ 6:15pm Eastern: Launch attempt scrubbed for the day, next launch attempt May 11 @ 4:14pm Eastern.
UPDATE May 10 @ 1:45pm Eastern: New liftoff time targeting 4:42pm Eastern.
ORIGINAL STORY – SpaceX’s long awaited first “Block 5” variant of their workhorse Falcon 9 rocket is ready to make its launch debut this week at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, after conducting a successful Static Test Fire atop historic pad 39A on May 4. The booster is scheduled to launch the Bangabandhu-1 communications satellite for Bangladesh at 4:12 p.m. Eastern on May 10, and although successful launch of the payload to orbit is the priority, the rocket’s transition from development and testing to fully operational marks a significant step towards returning astronauts to space from U.S. soil before the turn of the decade.
That’s because NASA will soon certify the Block 5 for launching human beings on. 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 certifying Falcon 9 to launch people. Block 5 will meet them all, allowing it to become rated for human spaceflight and ending further development of the Falcon 9 in general.
ABOVE: Watch SpaceX test fire their first Block 5 rocket atop KSC pad 39A. credit: Jeff Seibert / AmericaSpace
The U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing predicts an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions expected for launch May 10, with thick cloud layers expected to be the primary concern. The launch window opens at 4:12 p.m. and closes at 6:22 p.m. Eastern.
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It’s SpaceX’s last significant update to the Falcon 9, and represents the culmination of years of development, incorporating 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 before needing refurbishment, aiming for 48-hour turnaround between missions and 100 flights each before retiring. 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.
“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,” she added.
Visibly similar to its predecessors, standing 230 feet (70 meters) tall, the new configuration of the rocket is characterized by an approximately 7-8-percent thrust increase across all of its Merlin 1D+ engines, strengthened and retractable landing legs, and improved reusability performance and enhanced flight control systems.
“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“.
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. Matter of fact, SpaceX has already begun manufacturing at the Port of Los Angeles in California.
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, having launched 8 missions already this year, including the maiden voyage of the long-awaited Falcon Heavy on Feb 6 and launch of NASA’s TESS spacecraft to hunt for Earth-like worlds orbiting other nearby stars.
As for Bangabandhu-1, it’s all systems go in Florida, aiming for a geostationary orbit some 22,300 miles (35,900 km) above the Earth.
SpaceX will attempt to land the booster on their offshore autonomous drone ship too.