Falcon 9 liftoff

What is Falcon 9?

Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket designed and produced by SpaceX to transport satellites and the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. Its simple two-stage structure minimizes the usual number of separation events. Because of its nine first-stage engines, missions can be completed even in the scenario of an engine shutdown.

In 2012, SpaceX became the first commercial company to visit the International Space Station (ISS) after Falcon 9 delivered Dragon into the correct orbit to rendezvous with the ISS. A total of seven flights to the ISS have been made as of date. SpaceX aims to eventually send humans into space with Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft.

The Falcon 9 is capable of launching 13, 150 kg of payload to low Earth orbit. It can also launch 4, 850 kg of payload to the Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit. It stands at a height of nearly 225 feet with a mass of over 505, 846 kg.

There are currently three versions of Falcon 9: Falcon 9 v1.0 (phased-out), Falcon 9 v1.1 (current version, expendable), and the Falcon 9-R (reusable launch system). The rocket engines burn liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene.

The Falcon 9 v1.1, the current spacecraft being flown by SpaceX, is an improved version of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, weighing 60 percent heavier than its predecessor. It flew for the first time in September 2013. Moreover, Falcon 9 v1.1 will be used as base for the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.

Falcon 9-R is the third version of the rocket under development. It’s planned to have a reusable booster stage. Initially, the plan was to equip the flights with parachutes so they could be recovered later on. However, after seeing the method futile with the Falcon boosters not surviving the post separation aerodynamic stress and heating, a propulsively-powered-descent approach was planned instead. Several

How does it receive funding?

Before SpaceX had Falcon 9, they first invested in Falcon 1. Later on, Falcon 9 was made possible through NASA funding, starting from the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services  program. The program allows private companies like SpaceX to deliver crew and cargo the ISS. NASA awarded the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule combination with a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract from NASA in 2008 to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) under the said program.  It had its first commercial launch to resupply ISS in October 2012. It eventually made through five flights before it was retired in 2013.

Development costs are expensive especially in the space industry. In 2011, SpaceX reported that the development costs for Falcon 9 v1.0 may have been around $300 million. Interestingly, according to NASA, the costs would have been higher, even reaching $3.6 billion, if the traditional plus contract approach had been used instead.

In 2014, SpaceX revealed that it paid for over US$450 million worth of development costs to fund rocket and capsule development. Moreover, NASA also shelled out US$396 million to assist in funding the said efforts.

What are they made of?

The tank walls and  domes of Falcon 9 are composed of alluminum lithium alloy. They are also all-friction stir welded. Both stages of the tank are similar. The only difference is that the second stage tank is just a smaller version of the first, while still composed of the exact same elements.

In both stages, a pyrophoric mixture of triethylaluminum-triethylborane (TEA-TEB) is used as an engine ignitor.

The upper and lower stages of the Falcon 9 is connected by a carbon fiber aluminum core composite structure. These stages separate using reusable separation collets and a pneumatic pusher system.

SpaceX plans to eventually turn both stages reusable. However, recent attempts to make them so have been unsuccessful.

What is unique with it?

Engine-out capability. Among other things, Falcon9 can survive the worst case scenario. Because it has multiple first-stage engines, missions can now still be completed even if one of the first-stage engine fails.

Reusability. The initial plan involved attaching parachutes on Falcon 9. However, the falcon boosters were not able to survive post separation aerodynamic stress and heating. In 2011, SpaceX announced a plan to develop a propulsively-powered-descent approach instead. Simply put, the approach involved “bringing the rocket back to Launchpad using only thrusters.” A design for the approach was completed in 2012. Tests are still being made as of present.

As of March 2015, SpaceX announced that it’s developing an improved version of the second stage,  supporting booster reusability on the more-energetic communication satellite flights to geosynchronous orbits.

Where are the launch sites?

There are two launch sites as of date with a third one being planned. The first launch site, used mainly for ISS cargo resupply launches and for payloads on route to geostationary orbits, is the Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The second launch side, leased for polar-orbit launches, could be found at the Vandenberg Air Force Base’s SLC-g.  A third site is yet to be announced, although it was intended only for commercial launches. A third site, intended solely for commercial launches, would be Boca Chica, Texas.

How successful has it been so far?

Since 2010, Falcon 9 has made 17 successful launches until the failure of the 18th launch in June 2015. The exact cause of the failure is still unknown up to date although SpaceX CEO speculated that it was due to an “overpressure event” in the upper stage’s liquid oxygen tank.