Long Delayed Canadian Satellite to be Launched on Risky Falcon 9 Development Flight

15 Comments

It’s been a long, hard road to space for Canada’s CASSIOPE satellite, which now sits atop a Falcon 9 launch vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California waiting for engineers to resolve anomalies discovered in the rocket’s first stage engines.

The 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) spacecraft was originally booked in 2005 on SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 1 rocket, with an expected launch in 2008. Delays followed, and then CASSIOPE was shifted to the much larger Falcon 9 launch vehicle after SpaceX canceled the Falcon 1 program. The spacecraft spent years in a storage facility awaiting its turn.

CASSIOPE is now set for launch on a “development flight” of the new Falcon 9 version 1.1, which features about a half dozen significant changes over its predecessor. Any time a launch provider makes even one significant alteration in a booster, it increase the chances of something going wrong. To make a multiple ones and test them all at once involves major risks.

The Falcon 9 upgrades include:

  • more powerful Merlin 1-D engines that are 56 percent more powerful than Merlin 1-C engines
  • a different first-stage engine configuration with a center engine and eight others around the perimeter
  • stretched fuel tanks than are 60 percent longer
  • payload shroud being flown for the first time
  • upgraded avionics and software
  • simplified stage separation system.

The table below shows the differences between the two Falcon 9 versions.

Falcon 9 Comparison

Version Falcon 9 v1.0 Falcon 9 v1.1
Stage 1 9 × Merlin 1C 9 × Merlin 1D
Stage 2 1 × Merlin 1C Vacuum 1 × Merlin 1D Vacuum
Max height 53 m (174 ft) 69.2 m (227 ft)
Diameter 3.7 m (12 ft) 3.7 m (12 ft)
Initial first stage thrust 3,807 kN 5,885 kN
Fairing diameter N/A 5.2 m (17.1 ft)
Payload to LEO 8,500–9,000 kg
(18,739-19,842 lb)
13,150 kg
(28,991 lb)
Payload to GTO 3,400 (7,496 lb) 4,850 (10,692 lb)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been downplaying expectations, stressing that it is a development flight that could fail. “Upcoming Falcon 9 demo has a lot of new technology, so the probability of failure is significant,” Musk Tweeted on Tuesday.

In addition to changes in the launch vehicle, the upcoming flight will feature the first launch of a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg and the rocket’s first attempt to place a satellite in to polar orbit. The launch vehicle’s first stage also will attempt a controlled descent to the ocean, a crucial first step in SpaceX’s effort to development a reusable booster that can fly back to the launch site.

Musk has said that CASSIOPE’s builders have only paid about 20 percent of the standard $56.5 million cost of the Falcon 9 launch. That would translate to a cost of approximately $11.3 million. That sounds like a bargain, but then Falcon 1 launches were being advertised at $5.9 million in 2005 when the original contract was signed. And that doesn’t take into account the costs of the five-year launch delay.

SpaceX has a lot riding on this mission. The company needs to have an upgraded Falcon 9 in order to begin to clear the large backlog of communications satellites on its manifest. To date, the Falcon 9 has only launched into low Earth orbit, not the much higher geosynchronous orbits where communications satellites reside.

Musk has pressed the U.S. government to allow SpaceX to bid on military and national security launches. However, Air Force officials delayed the effort, in part because the early version of Falcon 9 rocket SpaceX was flying would not be the same version used to lift their satellites. In terms of reliability, SpaceX is starting back at square one with the Falcon 9 version 1.1.

 

  • therealdmt

    Seems like a lot of changes to make at once. It would seem that they could have at least tested the upgraded software and simplified stage seperation system on previous flights, lowering the number of untested elements on this first flight of the new version of the rocket.

    Oh well. Let’s hope they got it right — I’ll be pulling for a big success. Like everyone here, assuming they can get a clean launch, I’m really looking forward to hearing how it goes with their attempt at a controlled descent of the first stage.

  • Robert Horning

    Why is SpaceX making so many changes to their launcher? The larger payloads and what appears to be many improvements is indeed impressive, but so many variables at once? I know Werner Von Braun was gutsy with the “all up” test of the Saturn V, but this seems to be more of the same and just as gutsy.

  • Douglas Messier

    Good question. Basically, they’re behind the eight ball on schedule for many reasons. Let us count the ways:

    They’ve got a massive manifest of satellites to launch for both private companies and government.

    The manifest keeps sliding to the right even as they sign up even more customers.

    They can’t launch many of these satellites without the upgraded booster because they are going to medium, geosynchronous and even higher locations.

    They need multiple successful flights of the improved rocket in the same configuration to be able to be certified to compete to launch NASA and defense payloads.

    Falcon Heavy will incorporate many of the changes being tested on this flight. And that program’s schedule is moving to the right.

  • therealdmt

    To paraphrase Charlie Daniels, “They’re in a bind and they’re way behind, and they’re willin’ to make a deal”!

  • therealdmt

    In fairness to SpaceX, less new things are being flown at once on this upcoming flight than with the original [and successful] Falcon 9 launch just 3 years ago (June 2010). The second Falcon 9 (December 2010), being the first flight of the Dragon, may also have had more new things tested at once — and was also successful. Their next flight, their demo flight to the ISS, was also filled with firsts.

    So, though it does seem prudence would have dictated trying out some of these new things on the proven original Falcon 9 first, the team apparently feels they’ve taken similar risks before and came out on top, and that they can do it again.

  • therealdmt

    In fairness to SpaceX, less new things are being flown at once on this upcoming flight than with the original [and successful] Falcon 9 launch just 3 years ago (June 2010). The second Falcon 9 (December 2010), being the first flight of the Dragon, may also have had more new things tested at once — and was also successful. Their next flight, their demo flight to the ISS, was also filled with firsts.

    So, though it does seem prudence would have dictated trying out some of these new things on the proven original Falcon 9 first, the team apparently feels they’ve taken similar risks before and came out on top, and that they can do it again…

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    You can bet your ass they’ve tested all the mods to exhaustion and some of the changes surely carry a higher risk of performing in variance with test conditions than others. If all of the un-flown elements are, in the opinion of the design and test engineers at SpaceX, theoretically capable of leading to a failed flight, then the overall risk to SpaceX is not mitigated by spreading the changes over a number of flights.

  • Douglas Messier

    “You can bet your ass they’ve tested all the mods to exhaustion…”

    I don’t know if I would assume that, not with engine anomalies during the hold down test. They are as susceptible to problems as everyone else.

    Every launch they’ve had has had anomalies on it. During the last one, they came perilously close to losing the entire mission due to Dragon’s thruster problems.

  • Robert Horning

    I hope nobody needs to be reminded of Falcon 1 Flight 1. While I think such a disaster would be highly unlikely for this Falcon 9 flight, SpaceX has had some fairly substantial “oops” moments in its history.

    At the time, Elon Musk dismissed the issue, SpaceX also came incredibly close to going bankrupt during the testing of the Falcon 1 rocket as well. A whole lot is riding on a successful launch with this modified Falcon 9. While SpaceX might be able to survive a failure this time, I doubt it could survive two of them in a row.

    No doubt that the SpaceX engineers are doing everything they can prior to launch in order to test their equipment and design ideas. Unfortunately, just like in any other engineering endeavor, you don’t really know how everything is going to work until you put it all together and actually operate the actual machine/bridge/computer program in full scale operation. There is also a reason it is called “rocket science”.

  • Brainard

    While SpaceX might be able to survive a failure this time, I doubt it could survive two of them in a row.

    Oh sure, Robert, SpaceX could never survive multiple sequential launch failures, lol.

  • Brainard

    I guess you missed the obvious, Doug, their immediate goal is launch vehicle reusability, increased performance and lower costs. I rather think that was the driving force behind the major changes.

  • Douglas Messier

    Thanks, Brain guy. You’ve been clearing keeping up with SpaceX’s press releases. Excellent work.

    The questions was why they were cramming all these changes and a controlled descent into a single launch. That involves reasons both obvious to everyone (increased performance! lower costs! re-usability! a primary payload a greatly reduce rates!) and much more subtle (e.g., a large backlog of satellites that can’t fly on the basic Falcon 9). The subtle parts are in my response above.

  • Robert Gishubl

    The reason for all in one is that unlike other rocket programs this is self funded. SpaceX has to pay for these developments out of its own funds rather than a nice government cheque. So with rather than spread the risk over multiple flights that they would need to discount and would be lucky to fund customers for with NASA and DoD unwilling to fund development flights they are putting all eggs in one basket.
    There is a strong aversion to SpaceX in government circles as even with DARPA looking at a re-usable first stage it is looking at a winged version and no mention of SpaceX which is actually already got a prototype and about to do a demo flight. See link
    http://www.spacenews.com/article/launch-report/37205darpa-to-start-reusable-launch-vehicle-program
    There is a real risk SpaceX has bitten off a bit much but it is following a high return plan which carries high risk. I would prefer to see a lower risk with more gradual testing but that would require additional money which without external funding SpaceX can not afford so I understand why they are following this risky approach.

  • Douglas Messier

    It’s not totally true that the rocket is entirely self-funded. NASA picked up a large amount of the tab for developing the basic Falcon 9 rocket that has flown 5 times. And all flights so far have involved NASA programs (COTS & CRS).

    The government is also helping SpaceX to get the Falcon rockets certified so the company can compete for NASA and DOD contracts. The U.S. Air Force awarded SpaceX a contract for two launches and NASA has kicked in a third one prior to certification. These contracts were awarded as steps to help get the Falcon certified to carry U.S. govt. payloads. The three satellites are set for launch in 2014 and 2015.

    With the upcoming launch, it’s a bit different in that the U.S. government isn’t paying a demo flight. Instead, CASSIOPE is serving as the guinea pig for Falcon 9 version 1.1, upon which SpaceX has loaded at least a half dozen major upgrades.

    If it works, great. If not, the Canadians won’t be at all pleased. They signed up for a launch in 2005 at a bargain basement price expecting to fly in three years, four at the outside. Instead of going on a Falcon 1 that had several successful flights under its belt, they have to wait another five years to fly on an untested variant of the Falcon 9. If it ends up in the Pacific, they will have spent 8 years for nothing.

  • http://www.variousconsequences.com/ jstults

    I don’t think there’s “a strong aversion to SpaceX in government circles” at all.

    Potential SpaceX customers were looking forward today’s launch, especially since the U.S. Air Force has awarded SpaceX contract worth up to $100 million to launch satellites under its DARPA/FALCON program.

    “If he is successful, and we certainly hope he is, we are going to be a big customer of his,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Griffith, the director of the Defense Department’s Space Test Program, before today’s launch. “We are rooting him on like crazy.”

    SpaceX’s Inaugural Falcon 1 Rocket Lost Just After Launch