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The maiden flight of a new, highly advanced and powerful SpaceX rocket is scheduled for tomorrow morning at 9 am PDT from the Vandenberg launch range in California.  The new rocket, called the Falcon 9 v. 1.1 - a typically massive understatement of the level of progress it represents over the original Falcon 9 - has new and drastically more powerful (and more efficient) engines, the Merlin 1D, which are arranged in a different configuration than before, has a substantially longer tank and more fuel, and is designed to relight after stage separation in hope of eventually allowing stages to land back on the pad.  

The 1.1 will, it's hoped, evolve through incremental tweaking into the Falcon 9-R, whose first stage will be fully reusable and capable of landing back at the launch site.  Moreover, the 1.1/9-R would serve as the core of the three-core Falcon Heavy that would - if I understand correctly - serve as the workhorse of SpaceX's Mars ambitions and its "ULA killer" that would shatter the current Boeing/Lockheed monopoly on US military and intelligence launches.  Here's the 1.1 at Vandenberg, BTW:

SpaceX1-1Vandenberg8

SpaceX1-1Vandenberg7

SpaceX1-1Vandenberg2

SpaceX1-1Vandenberg5

SpaceX1-1Vandenberg4

SpaceX1-1Vandenberg3

SpaceX1-1Vandenberg6  

The timetable for these planned evolutions is astonishing: Between 1 and 3 years to evolve from the 1.1 currently on the pad to the 9-R and FH.  And SpaceX has proven itself capable of such amazing speeds, since the original Falcon 9/Dragon flew its inaugural flight only 3 years ago, and the much smaller Falcon 1 that initially demonstrated the Merlin engine had its first successful flight only two years before that.  This should be made clear: The rocket you see above is the most advanced ever built by humans, by a wide margin, and is not even the end-product.  It's not the most powerful (that honor goes to the Saturn V), but in terms of technology is far ahead of anything else that has ever been built.

Given that both the rocket and the SpaceX launch facility at Vandenberg are new, delays are likely, so the launch may not happen tomorrow - but SpaceX has also proven itself much more robust at keeping to schedule than other launch providers, so they might very well hit the mark.  Moreover, they're ramping up production of 1.1s and Dragons at their factory in Hawthorne, CA, and beginning to churn them out like Khrushchev's proverbial "sausages."  The plan, according to SpaceX, is to ultimately manufacture forty 1.1/9-R cores per year.  Here are some awesome new images from the factory floor:

Dragons in production:

SpaceX Factory 1 (Dragons)

SpaceX Factory 2 (Dragons)

1.1first stage cores in production - in the first image, try to see the little humans working on the rockets to get a sense of scale:

SpaceX Factory 3 (1.1s)

SpaceX Factory 4 (1.1s)

The Falcon Heavy, when they get around to it, will basically be three of the 1.1/9-Rs strapped together side-by-side.  That will be the third most powerful rocket of all time (still less than Saturn V, and also less than the Soviet Energia that only flew twice), and by far the most powerful in operation.

Also, here is one of the planned landing legs that will be attached to the 9-R once the various engine relight and landing technologies are evolved in the 1.1 - it's configured as it would look deployed, but during launch would be folded up against the rocket body (the dude in the picture is venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson):

You are like grasshopper

The 1.1 currently on the launch pad does not have landing legs, but its first stage will rather just test the relight capability and see if it can hit the ocean softly.  Although SpaceX is cautious about the test, and says failure is likely, the fact that it's even being attempted is revolutionary.  The 1.1 sacrifices some payload capacity in order to have fuel for relighting, which no corporatized, stock-driven launch company could or would do.  And yet it's still so powerful and so efficient that it remains an incredible bargain with a lot of payload capacity.

Here are some Merlin 1D engines in front of the octagonal harness that will hold them at the base of the rocket:

SpaceX Octaweb  

They had conducted a static test fire on the 19th that gives a brief glimpse of what the early seconds of the launch will look like:

It is a very skinny rocket all by its lonesome without the other two cores that will be strapped to its sides in the Falcon Heavy, so it will definitely look a bit weird rising into the sky.

So to summarize, this launch represents a lot of firsts, and a lot of bold risks:

1.  First launch of the Falcon 9 1.1: (a)First launch of the Merlin 1D engines on the first stage and the Merlin 1D Vac engine on the upper stage.  (b)First launch of the extended first-stage fuel tanks.  (c)First launch of the octagonal engine configuration on the first stage.

2.  First attempt to relight the first stage after stage separation (as far as I know).

3.  First launch of an F9 for a primary customer other than the US government.

4.  First use of a "clamshell" payload fairing by SpaceX, since it's launching a satellite rather than a Dragon.

5.  First polar-orbit launch by SpaceX.  Vandenberg is used for polar launches because the Pacific Ocean is in the opposite direction from Earth's rotation, so equatorial launches would be needlessly costly under most circumstances, and they don't want to launch over land for insurance and regulatory purposes.  So they launch to the South rather than the West.  I think.

6.  First use of SpaceX's brand-new launch facilities at Vandenberg.

As an added treat for dessert, the recent successful launch of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft looked awesome, although technologically and economically it has far less significance than what SpaceX is doing.  Check these images out:

antares-launch-on-ramp-sign

antares-rocket-with-cygnus-infrd-image

Antares Rocket Test Launch

Some videos of the Antares launch are worth watching:

It's a pity that Orbital's approach is a dead-end, but their launches definitely look cool.  Anyway, if SpaceX launches tomorrow and succeeds, knock on wood, a huge leap forward will have been taken.  And even if they don't succeed, they know the risks they're taking and seem fully prepared to push forward at maximum speed to achieve the objective.  Their customer, the Canadian government, was given a huge discount for taking the risk of flying on a new rocket, so even if it fails it's all good.

That's what's great about SpaceX: Failure isn't failure, it's just an unexpected and somewhat irritating lesson in how to achieve success.  So they're able to push ahead in a handful of years with advances that would be implemented by larger launch companies over ten or twenty years.  It's the poster child of a purpose-driven corporation for whom money is simply the means, and it's one of the few organizations of any kind in the world doing exactly what it should.  And if it succeeds at its ultimate goals, the whole world - all humanity, and all life of this planet wins.

In other words, I say this without hesitation or exaggeration: This upcoming launch tomorrow is the most important thing happening in the world.  And because SpaceX is so committed and so financially secure, even the failure of the launch would still move things forward.  This is the unbridled essence of progress and hope in action.  There will probably be delays because everything is new, but whether they light the candle tomorrow or next week or whenever, this rocket is the first step on the real stairway to heaven.

12:45 PM PT: I should add that the 1.1/9-R will be the rocket that transports astronauts to the space station starting around 2015.

2:52 PM PT: Ooo, just saw this.  This guy timed a skydive just as a Delta 2 rocket was taking off nearby:

Skydive during rocket launch

Originally posted to Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 12:44 PM PDT.

Also republished by Astro Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Very cool diary (7+ / 0-)

    I hear gardening is a nice hobby.

    by SeanF on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 12:56:12 PM PDT

  •  Just to clarify: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GAS, Troubadour, Powered Grace
    First polar-orbit launch by SpaceX.  Vandenberg is used for polar launches because the Pacific Ocean is in the opposite direction from Earth's rotation, so equatorial launches would be needlessly costly under most circumstances, and they don't want to launch over land for insurance and regulatory purposes.  So they launch to the South rather than the West.  I think.
    It's pretty much the second part, and the second part only: They can't launch over land.

    If you launched a polar satellite into the equatorial direction, you'd then need to perform what's called a "ninety degree plane change maneuver". Plane change maneuvers are incredibly costly and require a high delta-V (and thus lots of fuel) to perform; thus, avoiding them is a key factor in launch site location.

    •  The rotational aspect does matter (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wreck Smurfy

      in terms of the economics.  There's not much reason to launch an equatorial satellite from California if East coast ranges are available.  Plus it would drastically increase the kinetic energy of small debris impacts if its' orbiting in the opposite direction as everything else.  Still, you could launch to the West, I just don't know if anyone does.

      Always apart, always asking Why.

      by Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 01:58:12 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Definitely (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Troubadour

        It'd be Bad to launch retrograde. I am not aware of any satellite that is in an equatorial retrograde orbit, although there are some that are near-polar which are in a retrograde orbit (these are known as sun-synchronous satellites).

        •  How does one define a retrograde polar orbit? (0+ / 0-)

          You mean the orthogonal component is toward the West, or is there some arbitrary prograde direction in polar orbits?

          Always apart, always asking Why.

          by Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 02:23:05 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  ns (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Troubadour

            Not polar, but rather "near" polar, i.e. inclinations around 87 degrees or so. One could consider such orbits as "posigrade" orbits with an inclination of 93ish degrees, but orbital mechanics buffs would stab ya :) Inclination is usually defined in the range of -90 < i < 90 degrees, so exceeding that range in either direction just makes an ordinarily-posigrade orbit into a retrograde orbit.

            •  So it is just the equatorial component (0+ / 0-)

              that defines pro/retrograde in a polar context?

              Always apart, always asking Why.

              by Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 03:20:29 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Yep! (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Troubadour

                I'm not sure what they call perfectly polar orbits, though. I think they just use the inclination to differentiate between a south-->north orbit or a north-->south orbit. One would have 90 degrees (the north-->south one) and the other -90 degrees (south-->north).

                But one interesting tidbit is that a sun-synchronous satellite would not be sun-synchronous if it had an orbital inclination of 87 degrees. They have to be retrograde, otherwise the effect they're exploiting would no longer work. So in other words, I can't imagine why we'd want to launch something into an 87 degree orbit!

      •  Rotational aspect... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Troubadour

        Ideally, in terms of energetics, you'd launch to polar orbits from one of the poles. That way, your rocket doesn't have to 'fight' against the initial velocity it gets from tagging along with the ground. To get to a perfectly polar orbit from anywhere else in the world, the launch must be westwards.

        Conversely, the ideal location for equatorial orbits is near the equator -- the initial velocity one gets from the ground is at a maximum.

        So a launch location further North is good for polar orbit launches, and further South better for equatorial launches.

        Wikipedia lists retrograde satellite orbits -- there aren't many. Sun-synchronous orbits are one ("earth resource sensing") category (their retrograde component is fairly small, with an inclination of 87 degrees), and some Israeli satellites that were launched to allow launch detritus to fall into the Mediterranean.

  •  Will the launch be covered, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour

    say, on NASA TV or Space.com?

    Facts don't stop being facts just because no one listens to them. - Aldous Huxley

    by bisleybum on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 02:09:01 PM PDT

    •  Since NASA isn't the customer on this one (0+ / 0-)

      it might not be on NASA TV, but SpaceX might be streaming it on their website.  Don't know about Space.com.  Probably best just to check around tomorrow to the typical roster of sites until you find one with a stream going.

      Always apart, always asking Why.

      by Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 02:11:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Should launch on time tomorrow (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour

    Spacex has their hot fire testing well worked out. They were all green on the last test, so I don't expect any issues before liftoff. And the weather looks very good, 90% chance of clear skies.

    After launch its a question of how closely their simulations match reality. V1.1 is a substantial upgrade, but an evolution of existing designs. The engines have been tested on the ground repeatedly.

    The only thing I'm worried about is the first stage recovery actions. Those are the only things that are truly brand new. But all of those are gravy.

    •  Knock on wood. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Norm in Chicago, eyesoars

      "Evolution" is relative.  No other company in the biz has the balls to make leaps like this.  The last time progress happened this fast in rocketry was the Apollo program.  I would liken the Falcon 9 1.1 to the Saturn IB in terms of its evolutionary significance.

      Always apart, always asking Why.

      by Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 03:26:33 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Saturn IB was in the slide rule era (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Troubadour

        There is a massive difference between simulation power between now and the 60's. A much better chance now of knowing exactly how things are going to work out.

        I think most of the unknows will be when the first stage is reentering. Will it be stable, will the control system have enough authority, etc.

        But yeah, I'm going to be nervous.  

        •  Definitely easier today than in the '60s. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Norm in Chicago

          SpaceX is actually freer to advance than NASA during the Space Race.  There are no time pressures, no political interference, and yet still plenty of money.  It's what NASA should have been from the beginning.

          Always apart, always asking Why.

          by Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 05:29:49 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  well... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Troubadour, Norm in Chicago

            There are still time pressures, and no doubt there are and will be political pressures. And the money is not as free as it was during the space race.

            Still, I'm hugely impressed by their vision and their progress. If they can re-use the first stages with any regularity, it will change the economics drastically. As they point out on their website, fuel is only a tiny portion of the cost of the launch vehicle. Imagine how many people could afford to fly if a new plane was needed for every flight.

            A bigger factor though, is that much of this could not have been done in the '60s or '70s. The computing technology wasn't there, either in the vehicular control or simulation, and didn't really arrive until probably 1995 or so. Certainly the simulation power didn't start to arrive until then, when FE and Navier-Stokes models moved off of Crays and onto workstations. (Nor could a lot of the manufacturing technologies, which either didn't exist or couldn't have been done then, e.g., friction stir welding. Many of the materials now used didn't exist then, either (e.g., carbon-fiber fibreglas.))

            It's telling though that nearly all of the other existing launch vehicles derive from '50s and '60s era rockets. When the moon launch era ended in the '70s, nearly all the research going on at the time ended as well. That research was aimed at big, manned rocketry, and was all abruptly thrown over in favor of the shuttle, whose re-use economics estimates were off by orders of magnitude.

            Everything else stagnated after that, and SpaceX and a few other companies look to be taking the first steps out of the technological smoking crater of Apollo and the Space Shuttle.

            The other enabling technologies for space flight are, I think, ion drive (e.g., Dawn), practical fly-by/orbital transfer mechanics as exemplified by Messenger and many other probes, and vastly improved "brains" and electronics and, hopefully soon, optical communication.

            •  It's all relative. (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              eyesoars, Norm in Chicago

              The only time pressures SpaceX has to deal with are self-imposed, and completely flexible.  It obviously has less money than Space Race NASA, but it's not being tasked with a fixed goal on a fixed timeline, just an overall mission, driven by the internal sense of purpose of SpaceX personnel (and enforced by Elon Musk's personal vision).

              Agree with you about computing technology.  Most of the early predictions about space timetables were driven by ignorance about what was required.  Now we're back on track to making them practical.

              Definitely ion drive for in-space propulsion.  Particularly VASIMR.  I'd be curious to know what Elon Musk's plans are for in-space propulsion.  He could easily buy the company that owns the VASIMR patents.

              Always apart, always asking Why.

              by Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 06:48:38 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Are they? (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Troubadour, Norm in Chicago

                I thought that SpaceX is and had been an active participant in one or more NASA projects, and was more-or-less bound by the times and terms there. I gathered that they were reasonably flexible, but they are/were still competing against other firms.

                That is, weren't there basic programs for man-rated rescue/return capsules to retrieve people to earth from the space station [SpaceX is developing Dragon for this, Sierra Nevada has Dream Chaser, OSC has Prometheus, and Boeing has one in development as well], launch vehicles and support to provide materiel to the space station (and optionally, later, human transport to the space station) [I'm pretty sure Orbital is in this same program with SpaceX, but isn't planning on providing man-rating.]??

                •  SpaceX's "competitors" are a joke. (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  eyesoars, Norm in Chicago

                  ULA/Boeing is a competitor only because it has such political pull, but it's a dinosaur.  SpaceX is already miles ahead of it and accelerating.  Orbital means well but it's not even in the same league.  And Sierra Nevada?  Forget about it.  Blue Origin?  Forget about it.  SpaceX's only real competitor is the Chinese government.  Everything else is fucked.

                  Always apart, always asking Why.

                  by Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 07:31:48 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  ... (2+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    Troubadour, Norm in Chicago

                    It's nice to see them all working on things, and competition threatening ULA/Boeing, but I'm afraid your assessment is much truer than I should be happy about.

                    What is really clear, however, is that there really has been no effort to do basic R&D on spaceflight technology for some time. I think these projects are good, because an outfit like SpaceX (or OSC or ...) can come along and do the basic work needed and help get their expenses defrayed. By splitting this up into multiple projects, smaller players can enter, and that is desperately needed.

                    •  I really wish other companies would take a lesson (2+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:
                      eyesoars, Norm in Chicago

                      from SpaceX and try to seriously compete with them, but it's not really happening.  ULA is just using its influence to stall, and the rest are basically competing for second place to SpaceX.  No one dares to try to compete with them.  Which speaks well of SpaceX, but it means they're learning the wrong lesson.  SpaceX can only benefit from real competition.

                      Always apart, always asking Why.

                      by Troubadour on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 07:45:23 PM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

  •  polar orbit (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour

    Perfect for any mission to scan practically the whole planet, which is difficult from an equatorial orbit. Elon Musk may be the incarnation of Heinlin's "Man who sold the Moon"

    "....at last in virtue's narrow cell, the wretched bondsman sits"-Auden

    by pixelate on Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 04:45:40 PM PDT

  •  Here's a video... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour

    that I remember someone posting a few weeks/months ago (can't remember who or when or I'd give them the h/t) of the testbed for the Falcon 9-R soft landing capabilities: the Grasshopper. This is an aerial shot of the 325m test launch and landing, using a Falcon 9 first stage (with the Merlin 1D engines) and four of the landing struts seen in the picture Troubadour included in the diary. It's an awesome sight; a perfect launch, hover, and return to the exact spot on the pad it launched from. This is what SpaceX is going to have the Falcon 9/1.1 doing in a very short time from full-scale launches.

    Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Sun Tzu The Art of War

    by Stwriley on Sun Sep 29, 2013 at 05:46:36 AM PDT

    •  Damned embedding... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Troubadour

      seems to not be working for me again. I wish I knew why it goes in and out. Oh well.

      Here's a link to the video on YouTube, because it's just too cool not to share.

      Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Sun Tzu The Art of War

      by Stwriley on Sun Sep 29, 2013 at 05:48:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks. There's a bug in Youtub embed codes (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Stwriley

        where you have to manually insert the 'http' into the URL in the code.

        Always apart, always asking Why.

        by Troubadour on Sun Sep 29, 2013 at 09:19:39 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thanks! (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Troubadour

          I've been trying to figure it out. I just looked right over that, guess it was too obvious.

          Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Sun Tzu The Art of War

          by Stwriley on Sun Sep 29, 2013 at 02:30:55 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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