Elon Musk's privately-owned Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) plans to test an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday from California, as part of its push into the satellite launch market.
The modified, 22-story Falcon 9 will carry Canada's Cassiope science satellite, and will take off from a refurbished launch platform at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9 a.m. PDT.
Earlier Falcon 9's have taken off five times from the SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. If the Sunday launch goes as planned, SpaceX will take the rocket back to Florida for its first commercial launch later this year - with an SES World Skies communications satellite as cargo.
SpaceX CEO Musk comments, "this is essentially a development flight for the rocket." SpaceX seeks to break into the U.S. military launch service that's presently monopolized by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
So far, the Falcon 9 has flown 3 missions for NASA, along with 2 test flights. All were successful. though during the 4th mission, one of the rocket's engines cut out early. Other motors were able to compensate, and the Dragon cargo capsule it was carrying made it to the International Space Station.
The new upgrade, called Falcon 9 v1.1, has larger propellant tanks, upgraded avionics and software, and has 60% more power. SpaceX has over 50 mission orders backlogged, including 10 more cargo runs for NASA. The company presently charges $56.5 million per launch, though Musk is looking to lower that price by recycling the first-stage boosters. At present, the spent rockets just fall into the ocean. SpaceX is testing out a way around this with its Grasshopper program, to where the they could fly the boosters back to the launch site. Check out the video below of the Grasshopper system in action:
SpaceX engineers have yet to test the Grasshopper system over water, and Musk states, "just before we hit the ocean, we're going to relight the engine and see if we can mitigate the landing velocity to the point where the stage could potentially be recovered, but I give this maybe a 10 percent chance of success."
MDA Corp of Canada, who manufactured the Cassiope satellite, received a large discount to fly their gear on the Falcon 9 test. "Cassiope is a very small satellite. It takes up just a tiny fraction of the volume of the fairing. They paid, I think, maybe 20 percent of the normal price of the mission," Musk said.
SpaceX seeks to win lucrative U.S. Air Force contracts that currently fly with the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.