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Falcon (rocket family)

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Subject: SpaceX, SpaceX reusable launch system development program, SpaceX launch facilities, Falcon 9 v1.0, Falcon 9 v1.1
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Falcon (rocket family)

The Falcon rocket family: from left to right, Falcon 1, Falcon 9 v1.0, three versions of Falcon 9 v1.1, and two versions of Falcon Heavy

The Falcon rocket family is a set of launch vehicles developed and operated by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). They are the first orbital launch vehicles to be entirely designed in the 21st century.

The vehicles in this family include the flight-tested Falcon 1 and Falcon 9. The Falcon 1 made its first successful flight on 28 September 2008, after several failures on the initial attempts. The larger Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class Falcon 9 flew successfully into orbit on its maiden launch on 4 June 2010. The Falcon 9 is eventually intended to be a reusable vehicle. SpaceX is currently in production of the first Falcon Heavy launch system. Other designs for boosters with even larger payload lifting capabilities are currently being researched, but not yet confirmed.

Current launch vehicles

Falcon 9

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft, lifts off during the COTS Demo Flight 1 on 8 December 2010

On 8 September 2005, SpaceX announced the development of the Falcon 9 rocket, which has nine Merlin engines in its first stage.[1] The design is an EELV-class vehicle, intended to compete with the Delta IV and the Atlas V, along with launchers of other nations as well. Both stages were designed for reuse. A similarly designed Falcon 5 rocket was also envisioned to fit between the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, but development was dropped to concentrate on the Falcon 9.[1]

The first version of the Falcon 9, Falcon 9 v1.0, was developed in 2005–2010, and flew five orbital missions in 2010–2013. The second version of the launch system—Falcon 9 v1.1—is the current Falcon 9 in service.

Falcon 9 v1.1 was developed in 2010-2013, and made its maiden flight in September 2013. The Falcon 9 v1.1 is a 60 percent heavier rocket with 60 percent more thrust than the v1.0 version of the Falcon 9.[2] It includes realigned first-stage engines[3] and 60 percent longer fuel tanks, making it more susceptible to bending during flight.[2] The engines themselves have been upgraded to the more powerful Merlin 1D. These improvements will increase the payload capability from 9,000 kilograms (20,000 lb) to 13,150 kilograms (28,990 lb).[4]

The stage separation system has been redesigned and reduces the number of attachment points from twelve to three,[2] and the vehicle has upgraded avionics and software as well.[2]

The new first stage will also be used as side boosters on the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.[5]

The company purchased the McGregor, Texas, testing facilities of defunct Beal Aerospace, where it refitted the largest test stand at the facilities for Falcon 9 testing. On 22 November 2008, the stand tested the nine Merlin 1C engines of the Falcon 9, which deliver 350 metric-tons-force (3.4-meganewtons) of thrust, well under the stand's capacity of 1,500 metric-tons-force (15 meganewtons).[6]

The first Falcon 9 vehicle was integrated at Cape Canaveral on 30 December 2008. NASA was planning for a flight to take place in January 2010;[7] however the maiden flight was postponed several times and took place on 4 June 2010.[8] At 2:50pm EST the Falcon 9 rocket successfully reached orbit.

The second flight for the Falcon 9 vehicle was the COTS Demo Flight 1, the first launch under the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract designed to provide "seed money" for development of new boosters.[9] The original NASA contract called for the COTS Demo Flight 1 to occur the second quarter of 2008;[10] this flight was delayed several times, occurring at 1543 GMT on 8 December 2010.[11] The rocket successfully deployed an operational Dragon spacecraft at 1553 GMT.[11] Dragon orbited the Earth twice, and then made a controlled reentry burn that put it on target for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico.[12] With Dragon's safe recovery, SpaceX became the first private company to launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft; prior to this mission, only government agencies had been able to recover orbital spacecraft.[12] The first flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 was September 29, 2013 from Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying several payloads including Canada's CASSIOPE technology demonstration satellite.[13] The Falcon 9 v1.1 features stretched first and second stages, and a new octagonal arrangement of the 9 Merlin-1D engines on the first stage (replacing the square pattern of engines in v1.0). SpaceX notes that the Falcon 9 v1.1 is cheaper to manufacture, and longer than v1.0. It also has a larger payload capacity: 13,150 kilograms to low Earth orbit or 4,850 kg to geosynchronous transfer orbit.[13]


Falcon 1

The first Falcon 1 at Vandenberg AFB. This vehicle was removed from VAFB due to delays and eventually launched from Kwajalein.

The Falcon 1 is a small, partially reusable rocket capable of placing several hundred kilograms into low earth orbit.[14] It also functioned as a testbed for developing concepts and components for the larger Falcon 9.[14] Initial Falcon 1 flights were launched from the US government's Reagan Test Site on the island atoll of Kwajalein in the Pacific Ocean, and represented the first attempt to fly a ground-launched rocket to orbit from that site.[15]

On 26 March 2006, the Falcon 1's maiden flight failed only seconds after leaving the pad due to a fuel line rupture.[16][16] After a year, the second flight was launched on 22 March 2007 and it also ended in failure, due to a spin stabilization problem that automatically caused sensors to turn off the Merlin 2nd-stage engine.[15] The third Falcon 1 flight used a new regenerative cooling system for the first-stage Merlin engine, and the engine development was responsible for the almost 17-month flight delay.[17] The new cooling system turned out to be the major reason the mission failed; because the first stage rammed into the second-stage engine bell at staging, due to excess thrust provided by residual propellant left over from the higher-propellant-capacity cooling system.[17] On 28 September 2008, the Falcon 1 succeeded in reaching orbit on its fourth attempt, becoming the first privately funded, liquid-fueled rocket to do so.[18] The Falcon 1 carried its first and only successful commercial payload into orbit on 13 July 2009, on its fifth launch.[19] No launch attempts of the Falcon 1 have been made since 2009, and SpaceX is not currently taking launch reservations for the Falcon 1 in order to concentrate company resources on its larger Falcon 9 launch vehicle and other development projects.

Falcon 1e

A Falcon 9 v1.0 launches with an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft

The Falcon 1e is an upgraded version of the Falcon 1 with a larger fairing and payload mass, and is 6.1 metres (20 ft) longer than the Falcon 1.[20] By December 2010, Falcon 1e replaced the services of Falcon 1 on the SpaceX product list.[21]

The 1e version has not yet been flown and is not currently scheduled to make a flight. Continued development and use of the Falcon 1/1e have been stagnant while the company focuses on the Falcon 9/Dragon program.[22]

Falcon 9 v1.0

The first version of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, Falcon 9 v1.0, was developed in 2005–2010, and was launched for the first time in 2010. Falcon 9 v1.0 made five flights in 2010–2013, when it was retired.


Falcon 5

An early five-engine booster stage launch vehicle, the Falcon 5, was in design but its development was stopped in favor of the larger nine-engine Falcon 9.[23] Like the Falcon 9, it was also slated to be human-rated and reusable.[23]

Falcon 9 Air

In December 2011 Stratolaunch Systems announced that it would contract with SpaceX to develop an air-launched, multiple-stage launch vehicle, as a derivative of Falcon 9 technology, called the Falcon 9 Air,[24] as part of the Stratolaunch project.[25] On 27 November 2012 Stratolaunch announced that they will partner with Orbital Sciences Corporation instead of SpaceX, effectively ending development of the Falcon 9 Air.[26]

Under development

Falcon Heavy

SpaceX is building the first vehicle of a Heavy configuration, using a cluster of three Falcon 9 v1.1 first stages with 27 uprated Merlin 1D engines and propellant crossfeed.[27][28]

Reusable rocket launching system

SpaceX is developing a set of reusable orbital launch system technologies that will bring a first stage back to the launch site in minutes, and a second stage back to the launch pad, following orbital realignment with the launch site and atmospheric reentry, in up to 24 hours; both stages are designed to be available for reuse within "single-digit hours" after return.[29]

Design was complete on the system for "bringing the rocket back to launchpad using only thrusters" in February 2012.[29]

The reusable launch system technology is under consideration for both the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, and is considered particularly well suited to the Falcon Heavy where the two outer cores separate from the rocket much earlier in the flight profile, and are therefore moving at slower velocity at stage separation.[29]

The reusable launch system was initially announced on 29 September 2011. SpaceX indicated that they would attempt to develop powered descent and recovery of both Falcon 9 stages: a fully vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) rocket.[30][31] Included was a video[32] said to be an approximation depicting the first stage returning tail-first for a powered descent and the second stage, with heat shield, reentering head first before rotating for a powered descent.[33] A reusable first stage is now being flight tested by SpaceX with the suborbital Grasshopper rocket.[34]

By March 2013, a low-altitude, low-speed demonstration test vehicle, Grasshopper v1.0, had made four VTVL test flights including a 34-second hover flight to an altitude of 80 metres (260 ft).

In March 2013, SpaceX announced that, beginning with the first flight of the stretch version of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle—the sixth flight overall of Falcon 9, currently scheduled for September 2013—every first stage would be instrumented and equipped as a controlled descent test vehicle. SpaceX intends to do propulsive-return over-water tests and "will continue doing such tests until they can do a return to the launch site and a powered landing. ... [They] expect several failures before they 'learn how to do it right.'"[35]

For the late-summer 2013 flight, after stage separation, the first-stage booster will do a burn to slow it down and then a second burn just before it reaches the water. When all of the over-water testing is complete, they intend to fly back to the launch site and land propulsively, perhaps as early as mid-2014.[35][36]

SpaceX has been explicit that they do not expect a successful recovery in the first several powered-descent tests.[36]

Reusability offers several advantages, technical and economic. From a technical point of view, reusability increases robustness and increases reliability of the system, partly because the flown equipment can be brought back to a hangar for detailed post-flight analysis, keeping what worked and modifying what needs improvement. Economically, the reflight of booster stages will amortize the capital cost of the stage over many flights rather than just one, theoretically reducing one part of the per flight operating cost to the company.[37]


Grasshopper vehicle in September 2012

Grasshopper is an experimental technology-demonstrator, suborbital reusable launch vehicle (RLV), a vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) rocket[38] that was built in 2011 for low-altitude testing beginning in 2012.[39] The initial test vehicle "consists of a Falcon 9 first stage tank, a single Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs and a support structure, plus other pressurization tanks attached to the support structure" and will stand at 106 feet (32 m) tall.[40] Beginning in October 2012, SpaceX discussed development of a second-generation Grasshopper test vehicle, one that would have lighter-weight landing legs that fold up on the side of the rocket, would have a different engine bay, and would be nearly 50% longer than the first Grasshopper vehicle.[41]

A multiphase, multiyear flight test program is underway for low-altitude flights up to 11,500 feet (3,500 m), for durations of up to 160 seconds (2.7 min).[40][42] SpaceX "constructed a half-acre concrete launch facility" to support the Grasshopper test flight program.[43] SpaceX projected it would begin its flight test program in 2012,[39][43] and did so. Grasshopper began flight testing in September 2012 with a brief, three-second hop at the company's Texas test site,[44] followed by a second hop in November 2012 with an 8-second flight that took the testbed approximately 5.4 metres (18 ft) off the ground, and a third flight in December 2012 of 29 seconds duration, with extended hover under rocket engine power, in which it ascended to an altitude of 40 metres (130 ft).[34] In the latest test conducted on October 2013 of 78.8 seconds duration, it reached an altitude of 744 metres (2,441 ft).[45]

Proposed future concepts

In a presentation to the Joint Propulsion Conference in July 2010, SpaceX revealed a preliminary unfunded design concept for a larger Merlin 2 engine which could conceivably replace the nine engine cluster used on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy cores.[46] At conference, it was suggested that Merlin 2 could also be used on conceptual super heavy-lift launch vehicles Falcon X, Falcon X Heavy, and Falcon XX. The Falcon X could use three Merlin 2 engines, the Falcon X Heavy scaling up by tripling the first-stage cores, and the Falcon XX would be an even larger in-line configuration with six Merlin 2 engines.[46]

By August 2010, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk clarified that while the Merlin 2 engine architecture was a possible element of any effort they would make toward their objective of "super-heavy lift" launch vehicles,[47] the potential launch vehicle design configurations shown by Markusic at the propulsion conference were merely conceptual "brainstorming ideas", just a "bunch of ideas for discussion," and not financed SpaceX projects.[47]

Since its announcement, the status of the Merlin 2 engine has become unclear. Merlin 2 was to originally have been a gas-generator cycle engine, just like Merlin 1. However, at the 2011 Joint Propulsion Conference, Elon Musk stated that SpaceX were instead working towards a potential staged cycle engine.[48] In October 2012, SpaceX publicly announced concept work on a rocket engine that would be "several times as powerful as the Merlin 1 series of engines, and won't use Merlin's RP-1 fuel".[49] They indicated that the large engine was intended for a new SpaceX rocket, using multiple of these large engines could notionally launch payload masses of the order of 150 to 200 tonnes (150,000 to 200,000 kg) to low-Earth orbit. The forthcoming engine currently under development by SpaceX has been named "Raptor". Raptor will use liquid methane as a fuel, and will have a sea-level thrust of 1,000,000 pounds-force (4,400 kN).[50]

Merlin 2 Conceptual Launch Vehicles (2010) F9 with Merlin 21 F9H with Merlin 21 Falcon X Falcon X Heavy Falcon XX
Cores 1[51] 3[51] 1 3 1
M2 Engines per core 1[51] 1[51] 3 3 6
Total thrust (MN) 5.3[51] 16[51] 16[51] 48[51] 45[51]
Mass to LEO (tonnes) 11.5[51] 34.0[51] 38.0[51] 125.0[51] 140.0[51]

1Conceptual Merlin 2 versions, unrelated to normal Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.[52]

Competitive position

SpaceX Falcon rockets are being offered to the launch industry at highly competitive prices, allowing SpaceX to build up a large manifest of over 50 launches by late 2013, with two-thirds of them for commercial customers exclusive of US government flights.[53][54]

In the US launch industry, SpaceX prices its product offerings well below its competition. Nevertheless, "somewhat incongruously, its primary US competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA), still maintains that it requires a large annual subsidy, which neither SpaceX nor Orbital Sciences receives, in order to remain financially viable, with the reason cited as a lack of market opportunity, a stance which seems to be in conflict with the market itself."[55]

SpaceX launched its first satellite to geostationary orbit in December 2013 (SES-8) and followed that a month later with its second, Thaicom 6, beginning to offer competition to the European and Russian launch providers that had been the major players in the commercial communications satellite market in recent years.[54]

SpaceX prices undercut its major competitors—the Ariane 5 and Proton—in this market,[56] and SpaceX has at least 10 further geostationary orbit flights on its books.[54]

Moreover, SpaceX prices for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are much lower than the projected prices for the new Ariane 5 ME upgrade and its Ariane 6 successor, projected to be available in 2018 and 2021, respectively.[57]

As a result of additional mission requirements for government launches, SpaceX prices US government missions somewhat higher than similar commercial missions, but has noted that even with those added services, Falcon 9 missions contracted to the government are still priced well below US$100 million (even with approximately US$9 million in special security charges for some missions) which is a very competitive price compared to ULA prices for government payloads of the same size.[37]

ULA prices to the US government are nearly $400 million for current launches of Falcon 9- and Falcon Heavy-class payloads.[58]


Launch vehicle comparisons[14][21][59]
Version Falcon 1 Falcon 1e Falcon 9 v1.0 Falcon 9 v1.1 Falcon Heavy
Stage 0 2 boosters with 9 × Merlin 1D each;[28] optional propellant crossfeed for increased launch mass capability
Stage 1 1 × Merlin 1A (2006–2007); 1 × Merlin 1C (2008 ff)[60] 1 × Merlin 1C 9 × Merlin 1C 9 × Merlin 1D 9 × Merlin 1D[28]
Stage 2 1 × Kestrel 1 × Kestrel 1 × Merlin Vacuum 1 × Merlin Vacuum 1 × Merlin Vacuum[61]
Max height (m) 21.3 26.83 54.9[14] 68.4[62] 68.4[28]
Diameter (m) 1.7 1.7 3.61[14] 3.71[62][63] 3.7 x 11.61[28]
Initial thrust (kN) 318 454 4,900[14] 5,885[62] 17,615[28]
Takeoff mass (tonnes) 27.2 38.56 333[14] 506[62] 1,463[28]
Inner fairing diameter (m) 1.5 1.71 3.71 or 5.21[14] 5.21[62][63] 5.21[28]
LEO payload (kg) 570 1010 10450[14] 13,150[62] 53,000[28]
GTO payload (kg) 4,540[14] 4,850[62][63] 21,200[28]
Price history (Mil. USD) 2006: 6.7 [59]
2007: 6.9 [64]
2008: 7.9 [59]
2007: 8.5 [59]
2008: 9.1 [59]
2010: 10.9 [59]
2005: 27 with 3.6m fairing, 35 with 5.2m fairing to LEO[1]
2009: 49.5 (if paid in full before December 2009)[65]
2011: 54 to 59.5[14]
2011:80 to 124 [67]
2012:83 to 128[68]
2013: 77.1 [<6.4 ton to GTO][4]
          135 [>6.4 ton to GTO][4]
Current price (Mil. USD) 61.2 [69] 85 [Up to 6.4mT to GTO] [69]
Success ratio (successful/total) 2/5 5/5[70] 8/8

See also


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External links

  • Falcon 9 overview on SpaceX company website
  • Falcon Heavy overview on SpaceX company website
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