It looks like SpaceX is still on track for the debut launch of its drastically upgraded Falcon 9 from its new facility at Vandenberg on September 5th, and there are now photos showing some of those upgrades: Particularly, the new circular engine arrangement, telescoping landing legs on the bottom of the first stage, and also images of their Vandenberg facility.

The most visually conspicuous change in the new Falcon 9 - which is now being called 9-R, after originally being designated v. 1.1 - is the circular (or octagonal) arrangement of the first stage engines, with one in the center.  The previous F9 had a 3x3 square arrangement.  The new configuration:




The landing legs don't appear to have been added to the first stage yet, and they won't actually be used for landing on the upcoming launch - the stage is just going to relight and splash down in the ocean as a test of the stage's ability to reignite and slow itself down.  I don't know if they plan to put the legs on at all in order to test their deployment in flight - maybe, maybe not.  So we may or may not see the legs on the upcoming flight in September.  Here's one leg on the shop floor:


This is what it's supposed to look like with legs attached and folded up:


Another new thing is the cargo fairing - the aeroshell that will go around a satellite as opposed to the Dragon spacecraft that has been delivered in every previous launch.  The upcoming flight is purely commercial and will be sending up a Canadian satellite, so the delivery mechanism is different.  Here's the fairing in a testing chamber:


And a diagram showing the scale of the fairing, illustrating that it can encompass a full-sized school bus:


It works by splitting in half once the upper stage is in orbit.  It's not new technology by any stretch of the imagination, but SpaceX hasn't used fairings on the Falcon 9 yet, so it will be a new step for them.  Some shots of the new Vandenberg complex on the California coast that will host the launch:



The 9-R is most advanced rocket ever built, by a long margin, and it isn't even the final product of the current design cycle - it's just the core of an even more advanced, more powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy.  I'm not an engineer, but my vague sense of it is that it's at least a decade ahead of anything else, if not more.  The gestalt and rapid feedback involved in SpaceX's programs defies description, and achieves results in short periods of time that would take more typical aerospace corporations and government institutions years or decades.  Part of it is, of course, due to the fact that they work with NASA, so in ways they're actually leveraging the advantages of government institutions while avoiding the drawbacks.

Falcon Heavy (FH), BTW, is basically three of the 9-Rs strapped together and is scheduled for launch sometime early next year, although the details of its technology are a lot more complicated than that.  Here's a comparison:


If I'm not mistaken, FH is SpaceX's Mars rocket that will deliver material and, eventually, people to the Red Planet beginning at some point in the 2020s.  It's also its ULA-killer that will very likely put Lockheed Martin and Boeing out of the launch business over the coming 15 years or so as the overpriced monopoly's preexisting contracts are gradually exhausted.  Then there will only be four players: Russia, China, Europe...and SpaceX.  That will be interesting to watch, because there's at least a theoretical possibility that a government can subsidize launches up to 100% in order to destroy a competitor.  It's doubtful that any of them would go that far, but we will have to see how far they do go.

SpaceX is also planning to unveil Dragon 2 (also known as "Red Dragon" in some reports) at some point later this year, which they've described as being (and looking) radically different from the current Dragon - Elon Musk has said it looks like an "alien spaceship," whatever that means.  They're also planning to move beyond the Grasshopper vertical-takeoff and landing test rocket and build a version with the full complement of 9 engines to be tested at Spaceport America in New Mexico, because that facility has no launch ceiling - they can go as high as they want without special permits.  There have been no promises, but hopefully this year we'll get some more hints about MCT - the Mars Colonial Transport system that has been hinted at from time to time.  It's very likely in the earliest of developmental stages, but even conceptual material would be fascinating to see.

Tangentially, Elon Musk has promised more information about his "hyperloop" transportation concept this month, which he has vaguely promoted as a superior alternative to high-speed rail and air travel that could allow a trip between LA and San Francisco in half an hour.  His hints have made it sound like a variation on vacuum tube transport, but there must be more to it if it's a genuinely new concept that would be more practical than previous visions.

8:01 AM PT: Forgot to mention that the engines on the 9-R are a radical new version called the Merlin 1-D that's massively more powerful and efficient than current ones.  The 9-R is basically a new rocket unto itself.

9:11 AM PT: I'm told in comments that the legs will not be on the upcoming flight.  They'll be tested on Grasshopper 2, or whatever it's called, before flying.  Thanks to Norm in Chicago for the info.

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