The new Falcon 9 v. 1.1 successfully launched into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California this morning, right on the dot at 9 am PDT as planned, delivering the Canadian Space Agency's CASSIOPE satellite into a polar orbit. This is a BFD for both the economics and the technology of spaceflight, but is itself merely another step toward greater things. Details and screencaps below the curl.
First, some videos of the launch - the first is the official SpaceX video, which gets a bit choppy during the second stage flight, and the second is from a nearby suburb (thanks to Clark Lindsey for pointing these out on his NewSpace Watch blog):
No word yet on whether the first stage relight was successful, but apparently there were also moves being made with the second stage whose outcome has not yet been reported. But the flight itself was picture-perfect and all payloads are in orbit. No other launch company could achieve this much, this quickly. None. Not only a new rocket, but a brand-new launch site too, and they only started on both of them a couple of years ago.
Here are some screencaps from the video up top:
While still on the pad, we get to see the shiny Merlin 1D engine bells relatively closely on the left:
A few caps of the launch:
The second-stage Merlin 1D vacuum engine, optimized for operating outside the atmosphere:
The next step for SpaceX, as far as I understand it, is to strap two 1.1 first-stage cores on the sides, work out how to cross-feed the fuel, and then that will be the Falcon Heavy. That's a huge step in itself, but this flight was the bigger hurdle. And, of course, we're still waiting on word about their experiment with relighting the engines after stage separation. If that succeeded, the significance of this flight would go from huge to colossal. But even if it didn't, this is a big step in both the economics and technology of rocket flight. The 1.1 is the most advanced rocket ever flown, and will continue to evolve. It will also, BTW, be the rocket that transports astronauts to the ISS sometime in 2015, subject to ongoing developments with the Dragon spacecraft.
From the largest perspective, the reason this flight is hugely important is that the Falcon Heavy that will derive from it is designed to deliver about 29,000 lbs of payload to Mars (and way, way more to Earth orbit). The initial flight of the FH is aimed at next year, so the success of this launch means that timetable remains viable.
11:40 AM PT: Here's a better shot of the engine nozzles on the pad:
11:59 AM PT: It's been reported that SpaceX will hold a briefing at 12:30 PDT. Hopefully we'll get word about the engine relight experiments.
1:21 PM PT: Elon Musk tweets that "Rocket booster relit twice (supersonic retro & landing), but spun up due to aero torque, so fuel centrifuged & we flamed out". In other words, the relights worked, but during the descent the stage started spinning, the fuel moved to the sides of the tank and stopped being fed to the engines, so they stopped. But he also tweets, "Between this flight & Grasshopper tests, I think we now have all the pieces of the puzzle to bring the rocket back home." Sounds like he's confident they have enough data to make it work next time. Thanks to puppet government for bringing the tweets to our attention.
1:37 PM PT: Details of the relight attempts from the briefing:
1. 2nd stage relight failed, but they know why and think it'll work next time.
2. 1st stage relight involved two ignitions: The first one to slow down the stage at high altitude, and then a second just above the sea to make a soft splashdown. The first one worked, but the second caused the spin-out and engine shutdown due to fuel centrifuging. They know why and think they can fix it next time with software changes.
3. First stage hit the sea softer than it would have without the relight, but still hard enough to break up. But they recovered some pieces that could be informative.
4. Won't try to relight on next two launches, but will on third in 2014.
5. Falcon Heavy test fire in 2nd quarter of 2014 (April-May-June).
6. Rocket overall performed better than expected.
7. Next Falcon 9 v. 1.1 scheduled for next month.
2:06 PM PT: Musk says 1st stage on February Dragon flight likely to have landing legs, and the Dragon will be the new version that Musk has said looks very different from the current one, like an "alien spaceship."
5:33 PM PT: Here's another pretty one, really shows how skinny the 1.1 looks in the air: