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SpaceX launches improved Falcon 9


September 30, 2013

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California

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If you saw a UFO over South Africa on Sunday, it was (probably) SpaceX’s improved Falcon 9 going into orbit. The commercial launch vehicle lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California at 9:00 AM CDT on a demonstration flight of the upgraded booster and a new engine cluster configuration.

Shown as a live video stream on the web, Sunday’s launch went almost without a hitch. One minute, 10 seconds after liftoff, the two-stage rocket broke the sound barrier and at about the two and a half minute mark, two of the first-stage engines shut down, followed shortly after by the remainder. Five seconds after main engine cutoff, the first and second stages separated. The second stage engine burned for 6 minutes, 17 seconds to put the payload into orbit.

On Twitter, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said, “Launch was good. All satellites deployed at the targeted insertion vectors.”

The launch vehicle was the Falcon 9 v 1.1, which is the replacement for the original Falcon 9. With a height of 68.4 m (224 ft), it’s significantly taller that the original Falcon’s 54.9 m (180 ft). It’s also heavier with a launch weight of 505,846 kg (1,115,200 lb) as opposed to 333,400 kg (735,000 lb). The Falcon 9 v 1.1 can put 13,150 kg (28,990 lb) into low Earth orbit over the original's 10,450 kg (23,040 lb) and can send 4,850 kg (10,690 lb) to geosynchronous orbit where the old Falcon 9 could only cope with 4,540 kg (10,010 lb).

At the heart of the Falcon v 1.1 is the new Merlin 1-D engine. Also developed by SpaceX, the throttleable, liquid-fueled engine generates 147,000 ft lb (654 kN) of thrust over the older Merlin 1-C’s 94,000 ft lb (420 kN). There are nine of these engines set in what SpaceX calls an “octaweb” arrangement. This is an “O” pattern” of eight engines in a ring around a single inboard engine, which provides streamlining and increases strength to withstand the Merlin 1-D’s greater thrust. It also makes the first stage more compatible with a reusable booster design and is easier to construct using robotics than the previous configuration.

Another first is the payload fairing. This aerodynamic nose cone is made of carbon fiber and an aluminum honeycomb core, and with a diameter of 17 ft (5.1 m) and a height of 42 ft (12.8 m), it's big enough to hold a bus. Previous Falcon 9 flights carried the Dragon spacecraft, which does not need a fairing at launch.

As part of this demonstration flight, the Falcon 9 carried the Canadian Cascade Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE) and three other satellites into low Earth orbit. CASSIOPE is a demonstrator for a new Canadian small satellite design using a common bus. It was joined by the Polar Orbiting Passive Atmospheric Calibration Spheres (POPACS), which is a privately funded CubeSat mission designed to measure the effects of solar flares on the upper atmosphere; the Drag & Atmospheric Neutral Density Explorer (DANDE), a student-built spherical spacecraft for studying atmospheric drag in the lower-thermosphere; and Cornell University’s CUSat, which is testing a new GPS algorithm for millimeter-level navigation.

There was one disappointing result from the launch. The Falcon 9 first stage is designed to eventually be able to land on its own back at the launch site. As part of developmental testing for this capability, SpaceX tried to relight the first stage engines, but things did not go to plan. According to Musk on Twitter, “Rocket booster relit twice (supersonic retro & landing), but spun up due to aero torque, so fuel centrifuged & we flamed out.”

Despite this, Musk remains confident, as he relates in a subsequent tweet: “Between this flight & Grasshopper tests, I think we now have all the pieces of the puzzle to bring the rocket back home.”

The SpaceX video below shows Sunday’s launch.

Source: SpaceX

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

Has anyone thought of using steam to help in the assistance of lift off, kinda like on a aircraft carrier ? all you need is a hot flame.

Jay Finke

jay - do you mean putting the rocket in some sort of steam cannon to fire it before lighting the engines? (bad idea if engines don't light, rocket crashes) Or do you mean generating steam with engines heat and power? Any use of engine heat and power would likely degrade thrust, not improve it, as you would be adding both more weight in the form of water as steam propellant, but also potentially cooling exhaust reducing expansion of gas inside engine, reducing thrust as well. You would also have loss of energy as you lose energy every time you convert from one form to another (in this case converting from rocket flame to steam). It's easy to think of a rocket engine as the nozzle at the bottom, but that is just the escape and thrust vectoring portion of the engine, which sits above the nozzle. The thrust generating portion of the engine is the combustion chamber above the nozzle that generates the pressure that escapes the nozzle. Still a creative idea, so keep thinking creative thoughts!


@ Chizzy I think there is some waste heat from the rocket on the ground that could be used during take off that could be harnessed to propel a piston the length of the tower that would attach to the bottom of the rocket, some sort of tank under the launch pad platform would be the boiling chamber, thus creating the steam to propel the piston, assisting in take off ? I can just only imagine the crazy amount of heat that's created by one of these things. Living in Florida 28 years watching so many launches, feeling the ground shake and the air crackle when one of these bad boys goes up, well it makes me think, that's got to be a bunch of heat left on the ground, and could it be used ? well that's what I came up with and submitted to NASA years ago with no reply, I just figured there are smarter than me guys that already thought this threw. But that's my story and I'm stickin to it.

Jay Finke


How about using buoyancy by launching from the bottom of the ocean? The special air tanks would need to be near the top of the rocket because, contrary to a jet engine, buoyancy devices can impart a torque. The tanks would need to be pumped full of compressed gas and release it through overpressure valves during the ascent. The whole contraption would have to ride in a supercavitating bubble to reduce mechanical stress and increase maximum velocity.

I admit, it probably makes more sense to use the ocean on the way down for retarding reusable stages rather than using massive amounts of rocket fuel to do the same thing. Think of gannets using supercavitation while plunging into the see for fish.


"There was one disappointing result from the launch. The Falcon 9 first stage is designed to eventually be able to land on its own back at the launch site."

But how can it land on its own back? And it's a cylinder, isn't it, so where exactly is its back? I'm puzzled.

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