A Preview of Falcon 9’s Flight From Vandenberg

Mission Overview

Company: SpaceX
Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9 v. 1.1
Date: Sept. 14, 2013
Launch Site: Vandenberg Air Force Base, California
Orbit: Elliptical Polar
Primary Payload: CASSIOPE (CAscade, SmallSat and IOnospheric Polar Explorer)
CASSIOPE Funding Authority: Canadian Space Agency

CASSIOPE Description:
Cascade commercial communications system  and a scientific payload called ePOP (enhanced Polar Outflow Probe)

Secondary Payloads: CUSat-1 and CUSat-2 microsatellites (Cornell University); DANDE (Drag and Atmospheric Neutral Density Explorer) microsatellite (University of Colorado at Boulder); and three POPACS (Polar Orbiting Passive Atmospheric Calibration Sphere) 3U CubeSat (Morehead State University, University of Arkansas, Planetary Systems Corporation, Montana State University, Drexel University)

Mission Firsts

This launch features a number of firsts for SpaceX and the Falcon 9:

  • first flight of the upgraded Falcon 9 version 1.1, which features more powerful Merlin 1-D engines in a new configuration and stretched fuel tanks;
  • first use of a payload shroud;
  • first flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base;
  • first launch of a satellite into polar orbit; and
  • first powered descent of the first stage after initial burnout, a precursor to flying Falcon 9 boosters back to their launch sites for reuse.

The upgraded Falcon 9 has longer fuel tanks and towers 69.2 meters (227 feet), a significant increase over the F9 height of 53 meters (173.9 feet).

The new rocket also features Merlin 1D engines, which are 56 percent more powerful than the Merlin 1C predecessors. One engine will be in the center with eight others arranged in an octagonal pattern around the perimeter. Previous Falcon 1 have launched with the engines three across in a tic-tac-toe pattern.

After burnout and separation, the first stage will fire three of its engines in an effort to make a controlled descent toward the Pacific Ocean. Prior to reaching the water, one engine will fire so the stage will “impact the water with minimal velocity.”

SpaceX eventually hopes to recover both Falcon 9 stages for multiple re-use. The company says if it succeeds, it will be able to radically reduce the cost of getting into orbit.

This will be the sixth launch of a Falcon 9 rocket. Four of the five previous launches have carried Dragon freighters without payload shrouds. The other launch was the inaugural test flight of the Falcon 9.

CASSIOPE Description

cassiope_logoWith the launch of the hybrid small satellite CASSIOPE, scheduled for 2013, Canada will make a significant contribution to unraveling the mysteries of space weather. To accomplish this feat, the satellite will use the scientific payload ePOP (enhanced polar outflow probe), which will observe the ionosphere, and a technology demonstrator Cascade payload, which will provide a ‘proof of concept’ for a digital broadband courier service for commercial use.


The ePOP probe will observe the Earth’s ionosphere, where space meets the upper atmosphere; ePOP comprises a suite of eight scientific instruments, including plasma imagers, radio wave receivers, magnetometers and cameras. These will collect data about the effects of solar storms and, more specifically, their harmful impact on radio communications, satellite navigation and other space and ground-based technologies.


Cascade will provide CASSIOPE with information storage and large downlink capacity for ePOP data destined for Canadian and international researchers. The daily transmission volume could be up to about 15 gigabytes of data. (Credit: CSA)
Cascade will provide CASSIOPE with information storage and large downlink capacity for ePOP data destined for Canadian and international researchers. The daily transmission volume could be up to about 15 gigabytes of data. (Credit: CSA)

Like a courier in the sky, Cascade’s operational concept is to pick up large digital data files and deliver them to almost any destination in the world. The concept supports the efficient transfer of these huge files, equivalent to 50 to 500 pickup trucks filled with paper.

Small and Versatile

CASSIOPE’s hexagonal platform measures only 180 cm long and 125 cm high. It is more cost effective to construct and launch several small satellites with different goals than combining all the functionality on one big satellite. In addition to reducing the risk, this means that the satellites achieve their scientific or commercial objectives at a more reasonable cost.

The new platform produced for the CASSIOPE mission will also be versatile: it will be possible to adapt and use it for various missions involving science, technology, Earth observation, geologic exploration and information delivery.

Professor Andrew Yau of the University of Calgary directs the ePOP project and a team comprised of researchers and engineers from seven Canadian universities. The Communications Research Centre, located in Ottawa, as well as the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science of Japan and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are also partners in the project.

Moreover, CASSIOPE benefits from a solid partnership between the private and public sectors. Bristol Aerospace, based in Winnipeg, has constructed the satellite platform. Vancouver’s MDA is the project’s prime contractor and directs a group of Canadian companies with a view to developing terrestrial and space-based infrastructures and operating the satellite.

  • Andy

    Man would I love to see video of the powered descent. Hopefully it goes well enough that SpaceX is willing to share photos and video.

  • Hug Doug

    i think even if it goes badly we’ll see pictures and video from SpaceX. they’re pretty good about posting that sort of thing.

  • Nickolai

    In “Mission Firsts” in the second paragraph after the bullets you mistakenly referred to Falcon 1:
    “Previous Falcon 1 have launched with the engines three across in a tic-tac-toe pattern.”
    Should be Falcon 9 of course.
    Plus, I hear the launch has been moved to Sunday

  • Robert Horning

    Is there going to be an attempted recovery of the 1st stage (presumably in the Pacific Ocean)… not for refurbishment but simply for engineering analysis? That has been a supposed goal at some point for every flight since the first Falcon 1 flight, but so far has never happened. It would take committing resources at sea to collect the first stage though… which is why I’m asking.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Musk suggests the chances of a successful “soft” landing on the ocean are about 10%. There is also doubt about whether the landing radar (used by Grasshopper) will be able to detect the water surface accurately enough, since it has only been tested on land. I have no idea of the depth of the water they hope to drop/land it in, but the first stage with interstage must be best part of 50m or more.

    He is stressing that this is a demonstration flight and not a full commercial flight (MDA bought the flight at 20% cost and knowing the risks). Along with the numerous changes/new-tech mentioned in the article, the avionics and software are also upgraded, and new interstage attachments and separation mechanism. Quote from Twitter: “Upcoming Falcon 9 demo has a lot of new technology, so the probability of failure is significant”.

    Presumably they wouldn’t launch until they were 90+% confident/hopeful of a successful flight, but best to adjust your expectations to avoid too much disappointment if flight goes awry.

  • Nickolai

    I they are indeed attempting to recover the first stage in a manner similar to the videos they have posted – turn it around post-sep, do a velocity reduction burn, then another burn when it comes in for “landing” on the water

    I doubt they know at this point whether or not they will refurbish this stage. Of course, they first have to do some sort of inspection analysis, but not necessarily of every part. An easy way to figure out if it still works is, after drying it, throw it up on the test stand and flow propellants. Supposing that looks good, hotfire it on the stand, and if all looks good, find some customer who’s will to take the risk of riding on a “refurbished” rocket, and shoot it up!

  • Michel Laliberté

    There are two things that puzzle me about the Falcon 9:

    First, does SpaceX plan to use some “plug effect” (i.e.,
    optimizing global thrust for void by gradually pointing the outboard engines a
    bit inward as the vehicle leaves the atmosphere)?

    Second, if we compare the Falcon 9 with the Zenit (both rockets
    burn only LOX and kerosene), the Merlin engines have an Isp of about 315 and
    the close-cyle Zenit engines, 335 or more. If so, how come the more efficient Zenit
    needs three stages to go to GTO, and the Falcon 9, only two?

    Anybody has a guess?

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I confess the Zenit (3SL) has been absent from my radar, probably loast hope and interest due to the exploding on the platform incident. But it is, both cost and performance, very comparable to F9.

    I can find no data to back this up, but you did ask for a guess: I suspect that SpaceX design and manufacture allow for a lighter structure.
    Also the F9 is heavier at launch – more mass of fuel, less mass of structure, equals more efficient vehicle design, which overcomes the comparable shortcomings of the engines. Musk has described the Merlin 1D as having the best power to weight of any engine, lending some credence to the superior mass fraction idea/guess.

    Also, the F9 burns its first stage 30 seconds longer than Z3, which obviously helps the upper stage. Is the 3SL a development of the Zenit 2?, and so inherits the staging ratio from that vehicle. Again, picking from the crumbs of Elon’s many comments, he has sited the optimised staging ratio as a contributary factor for the overall simplicity/performance of the vehicle.

    As to your first point, I have no idea. Not whether such a scheme would be effective nor whether F9 employs it. Surely, in vacuum, once out the nozzle the thrust contribution is done, but I stand to be corrected.

  • Hug Doug

    1st question: not that i’ve heard of, and i don’t know of any other launchers that do this. the outer engines in the octaweb can gimbal, but i’m unsure whether or not the structure of the stage is designed to handle outward stresses from all 8 engines like that.

    2nd question. in this case, i think Isp is less important than the thrust-to-weight ratio. an Isp of 315 and 335 are pretty similar, so… the Merlin 1C engines have a thrust-to-weight ratio of 96, which is better than that of the Zenit’s RD-171 engine’s TW ratio of 82. the Falcon 9 first stage has a larger tank and a longer burn time, so the first stage of the Falcon 9 gets higher and is moving faster than the first stage of the Zenit rocket at first stage separation.

  • therealdmt

    I haven’t read anything about them trying to recover the first stage, only that they will fire engines to control the descent, and then do a final burn to slow the landing velocity down. The rocket stage itself may quickly sink once hitting the water.

  • Jay Jay

    Pretty damn excited by this launch – agree with Andy tho, would *love* to see this happening. God-speed SpaceX (go Elon!!).

  • delphinus100

    Definitely not a re-fly, no matter how intact it comes down. Salt-water immersion alone makes that very problematical, especially for a liquid rocket.

    This is only to try to:

    A: Show that a Falcon first stage can be propulsively slowed to zero-velocity just above the surface, a ‘virtual’ landing after an actual launch (as opposed to a Grasshopper ‘hop’), and…

    B: To examine engines and any other recoverable structure after an actual launch, and see if and how much that differs from operation on a test stand for the same duration…

  • Dale Dodd

    My guess would be that if the test is successful, the Rocket Body, (RB) is intact, and Saltwater damage is minimal. the y will inspect, evaluate, improve, repair, and re-fire. Musk has always intended the RB’s return via splashdown in the ocean and pickup by ship, (they have already done this I believe, with crunched RB’s). The return to land on the pad is mostly for ?Moon? Mars? cost? Of course while return to launch site or landing on a downrange recovery ship, is optimal, it may not be essential. With proper coatings and materials and minimal in-sea-time each RB should be good for 3-5 reuses before rework and more uses. I sure each is going to be test-stand fired and re-fired at the launch site. Can’t wait for SpaceX IPO!!!
    ????? When Elon?? When??

  • Hug Doug

    there were attempts to recover the Falcon 1 and the first Falcon 9 first stage using parachutes and fishing them out of the ocean. they were all too badly damaged to refurbish.

    SpaceX will not be recovering stages from the ocean for reuse. the Falcon 9-R is designed to reuse the first stage by returning to the launch pad, and touching down on land. these tests are not intended for the Moon or Mars, but for right here on Earth.

    SpaceX will probably not have an IPO while Elon Musk is in charge. He wants to pursue the technology to go to Mars, and if SpaceX were publicly owned it is unlikely that he would have the freedom to do so.

  • mfck


    Sept. 15  Falcon 9  •  Cassiope
    Launch window: 1600-1800 GMT (12-2 p.m. EDT; 9-11 a.m. PDT)
    Launch site: SLC-4E, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California

    A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Cassiope satellite for the Canadian Space Agency. Cassiope carries a communications relay payload for a commercial digital broadcast courier service and an instrument to observe the Earth’s ionosphere. The rocket will fly in the Falcon 9 v1.1 configuration with upgraded Merlin 1D engines, stretched fuel tanks, and a payload fairing. Delayed from April, June 18, July 9, Sept. 5, Sept. 10 and Sept. 14. [Sept. 9]

  • dr
  • Hug Doug

    I’m tempted to wake up early and make the 3 1/2 hour drive to Vandenberg just to try to watch.

  • Gabriel Larriuz

    I think you can add to that list the speed reducing burn in the atmosphere. This is highly experimental but might reduce a lot of re-entry damage.