Space Tech of the Week: Falcon 9

What is it?: Rocket developed by Space Exploration Technologies Co (Space X) with the purpose of reducing the cost per kilogram to orbit. It is an Expendable Launch Vehicle and its first launch is scheduled sometime in the next few weeks.

The Falcon 9 is also the intended launch vehicle for the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. The Dragon will be first used as an unmanned cargo vehicle for the International Space Station but the company hopes to use it (in its heavy launcher format) to eventually transport humans to orbiting space stations like the ISS and the Bigelow Inflatable Space Hotel.

The Falcon 9's first stage will have nine SpaceX Merlin rocket engines (125,000 lbs-f sea level thrust per engine for a total thrust on liftoff of just over 1.1 Million lbs-f) while the second stage will have a single Merlin engine modified for vacuum operation. The second stage tank of Falcon 9 is simply a shorter version of the first stage tank and uses most of the same tooling, material and manufacturing techniques. This results in significant cost savings in vehicle production.

As with the Falcon 1, Falcon 9's launch sequence includes a hold-down feature that allows full engine ignition and systems check before liftoff. If a problem is detected, the vehicle automatically shuts down and offloads the fuel.

The Merlin engine was developed internally at SpaceX. This engine is the highest performance gas generator cycle kerosene engine ever built, exceeding the Boeing Delta II main engine, the Lockheed Atlas II main engine and the Saturn V F-1. This vehicle will be capable of sustaining an engine failure at any point in flight and still successfully completing its mission.

So what are the advantages of this technology?: According to SpaceX, the Falcon 9 will offer the lowest cost per kilogram to orbit, despite providing breakthrough improvements in reliability. SpaceX offers open and fixed pricing that is the same for all customers, including a best price guarantee. Modest discounts are available for contractually committed, multi-launch purchases.

Cost per LEO mission = $36.75M
Cost per TLI mission = $46.75M
Cost per GTO mission:
less than 3500 kg = $36.75M
between 3500-4500 kg = $47.25M
between 4500-5000 kg = $57.75M

The current launching market in the U.S. is dominated by Lockheed Martin and Boeing and therefore there has not been much incentive to find ways to lower their launch costs. With the entrance of SpaceX and their low-cost rockets this could lead to lower costs across the board and makes space based solar power one step closer to reality.

Video of a simulated Falcon 9 launch with a Dragon capsule heading to the International Space Station:

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