SpaceX ready to test-fly new Falcon rocket
Space Exploration Technologies plans to test
an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday from
a site in California as part of its push into
the satellite launch market.
Previous versions of the Falcon 9 have flown
five times from the company's launch pad at
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
If the new rocket's debut goes well, SpaceX
plans to return to Florida for the Falcon 9's
first commercial mission, an SES World Skies
communications satellite, later this year.
Perched on top of the 22-story, beefed-up
Falcon 9 will be Canada's Cassiope science
satellite. Liftoff is targeted for 9 a.m. PDT
(1600 GMT) from a newly refurbished launch
site at California's Vandenberg Air Force
"This is essentially a development flight for
the rocket," company founder and chief
executive Elon Musk told Reuters.
The Falcon 9 has previously flown three
missions for NASA to the International Space
Station and two test flights.
In addition to work for NASA, private
companies and foreign governments, SpaceX
is looking to break the monopoly United
Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed
Martin and Boeing, has on flying big U.S.
All five Falcon 9 flights have been successful,
though during the fourth mission on October
7, 2012, one of the rocket's engines shut
down early. The other motors compensated
for the loss of power and the rocket's
payload - a Dragon cargo capsule - reached
the space station as planned.
Engines on the new Falcon 9 have 60 percent
more power than their predecessors. The
rocket, known as Falcon 9 v1.1, also sports
bigger propellant tanks, upgraded avionics
and software and other improvements to
boost performance and simplify operations.
The company has a backlog of more than 50
missions to fly on the new Falcon 9 and
planned Falcon Heavy rockets, including 10
more cargo runs to the space station for
The company advertises Falcon 9 launch
services for $56.5 million. Musk said he
would like to discount that price by recycling
and reusing the Falcon's first stage.
Currently, the spent boosters splash down
into the ocean and cannot be reused.
Toward that goal, SpaceX has been working
on related program called Grasshopper to fly
a booster back to its launch site. Engineers
have not yet tested how the system would
work over water, but they may get a trial run
during Sunday's Falcon 9 flight.
"Just before we hit the ocean, we're going to
relight the engine and see if we can mitigate
the landing velocity to the point where the
stage could potentially be recovered, but I
give this maybe a 10 percent chance of
success," Musk said.
Cassiope manufacturer, MDA Corp of Canada,
originally contracted with SpaceX for a ride
on its now-discontinued Falcon 1 rocket.
Instead, SpaceX offered the firm a cut-rate
price to fly on the new rocket's
"Cassiope is a very small satellite. It takes
up just a tiny fraction of the volume of the
fairing. They paid, I think, maybe 20 percent
of the normal price of the mission," Musk
SpaceX has already won two U.S. Air Force
contracts set aside for new launch service
providers, but is eyeing the more lucrative
missions currently flying on United Launch
Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.