A new rocket, the SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1, launched today, and preliminary indications are that it was a smashing success, carrying a Canadian science satellite and three small secondary payloads into orbit. Astoundingly, SpaceX managed to successfully re-start the first stage engines after separation, a first in the history of space flight.
You won't find it on the front page of Google News, CNN, or the New York Times. There is
a reason for that: SpaceX
, the private space launch company founded by Elon Musk, is being a little paranoid
about this one:
“We’re being, as usual, extremely paranoid about the launch and trying to do everything we possibly can to improve the probability of success, but this is a new version of Falcon 9."
-- Elon Musk
So what's new about it? A lot. Follow below the fold for the list, and the revolution that is upon us.
1. New Merlin 1-D engines, with 75% more thrust that the previous Merlin 1-C engines. This was the first flight for the Merlin 1-D, and they worked as advertised.
2. A new, longer rocket fuselage that holds 60% more fuel for both the first and second stages. Never flown before today. Worked as advertised.
These first two innovations are sufficient for the Falcon 9 v1.1 to be "human-rated", that is, capable of launching human crews into orbit with the generous safety margins required by NASA.
3. A new configuration for the nine main engines. Gone is the 3x3 square array of the Falcon 9 v1.0; now there is a central engine surrounded by eight others in a formation SpaceX calls an "octaweb". Worked as advertised.
4. A payload fairing, which has never been used by SpaceX before. This will allow huge flexibility in commercial launches of satellites of all sizes. It also presents a risk, because that's one more "separation event" that must occur correctly during launch, and would fail the mission if it doesn't work. Today, it worked as advertised.
5. The first SpaceX launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Since SpaceX manufacturing facilities are also in California, this reduces costs and allows greater launch flexibility; it also allows launching satellites into polar orbit, from which they can view the entire surface of the Earth.
Finally, and most importantly, the Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage was successfully restarted after separation.
It is impossible to overemphasize how important this last event is in the history of spaceflight. In every one of the thousands rocket launches to orbit before today, the first stage separates after exhausting its fuel and drops away into the sea (or in some cases on land) where it is destroyed, along with the several million dollars of hardware it represents.
But today, SpaceX did something nobody had ever tried before: they separated the first stage a little before it had exhausted its fuel supply. Then, before the stage hit the ocean, they re-ignited the main engines to slow its descent.
|The Merlin 1-D of the second stage, right after stage separation. The first stage can be seen falling away, prior to its historic re-ignition.
We don't yet know exactly how much the first stage slowed, or indeed anything at all about the first stage restart, except the bare fact that it happened, according to the launch live feed. No media is reporting this revolutionary event at all.
SpaceX is playing this one very close to the chest. According to Nasaspaceflight.com
, the first stage shut down as planned 2:43 into the flight, with stage separation occurring seven seconds later at 2:50. The first-stage reignite occurred at 8:05 into the flight.
SpaceX is sending two ships into the area to try to recover the first stage, although they do not expect it to be reusable after falling into the sea. And SpaceX's private jet flew into the area to try to view the engine restart; no news on whether Elon Musk is aboard.
And we also know that SpaceX has already made huge strides in building the software needed to hover, translate, and land a rocket the size of a Falcon 9 first stage. Their rocket-landing project is called "Grasshopper," and it is already a big success:
This means we are on the verge of a fully reusable first stage, which would represent an enormous cost savings over the current single-use rockets. If SpaceX is able to recover and re-use a first stage, the price of sending payloads into orbit would be immediately lowered by a substantial amount. And it would also mean that SpaceX would be able to enjoy years of competitive advantage that no other company or even nation could match. Which is why they're not talking much about what happened today.
Oh, and one more thing: do you see those long, skinny triangles pointing up from the base of the Falcon 9 v1.1 in the drawing on the left? They're not on the rocket that was launched today. Do you know what those are?
They're landing legs.
UPDATE: From Elon Musk's twitter feed:
"Launch was good. All satellites deployed at the targeted orbit insertion vectors. pic.twitter.com/SUYMH7W9pH "
"Rocket booster relit twice (supersonic retro & landing), but spun up due to aero torque, so fuel centrifuged & we flamed out "
"Between this flight & Grasshopper tests, I think we now have all the pieces of the puzzle to bring the rocket back home."
Tweet #2 answers a question from the comments: no, apparently they do not have rotational control over the longitudinal (vertical) axis on this flight. But with this failure mode, I'm betting that they will the next time. Thanks, Elon!
Meanwhile, the recovery ship American Islander is about 250 miles southwest of San Diego, and has been drifting for the last several hours, apparently conducting stage recovery operations.