In the meantime, the improved Falcon, dubbed Falcon 9 v1.1, is racing against the mid-2013 deadline to demonstrate flight hardware ahead of the SES launch, a mission that aims to send the Canadian science satellite Cassiope to near-polar orbit from a new launch site SpaceX is building at Vandenberg AFB, Calif.
If SpaceX is unable to make the deadline, SES has back-up options, including the Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher managed by European consortium Arianespace of Evry, France. To date that company has already bailed out at least one former SpaceX customer. In 2009, London-based Avanti Communications swapped a Falcon 9 for an Ariane 5 to loft its Ka-band Hylas 1 broadband satellite because it could not wait for SpaceX's launcher to be qualified.
Moreover, last month Iridium announced it had rearranged launch plans for its Iridium Next constellation of 72 satellites to give SpaceX more time to prepare for the initial mission. Iridium CEO Matt Desch says the company, which signed a $492 million contract with SpaceX in 2010, is actually saving about $15 million by manifesting 10 Iridium Next satellites on seven Falcon 9 rockets, rather than nine aboard eight rockets, over the course of two years beginning in mid-2015.
Still, despite a series of lengthy delays and a few nail-biting technical issues—last-minute hardware mods on the launch pad and an engine anomaly—the Falcon 9 family is widely seen as a technological success brimming with commercial promise in an industry generally averse to innovation and risk. So far, few details of the Falcon 9 v1.1 have emerged, though qualification testing of the new rocket's more powerful Merlin engine, the Merlin 1D, is expected to wrap up by year-end.
With 50% more thrust than the Merlin 1C, the 1D will enable Falcon 9 v1.1 to loft as much as 4,850 kg (10,692 lb.) to geostationary orbit from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla. “It's a much higher-thrust engine, but surprisingly a lot of the infrastructure of that engine is the same,” says SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. The chamber itself is the same. “The difference is instead of plating it, we're brazing on the jackets.”
The nozzle, too, is different: “We use a tube-wall nozzle on the 1C and we're using the milled copper for the nozzle extension,” she says.
Another change, she says, involves the rocket's nine Merlin 1D engines, which will be positioned in an octagonal configuration, rather than the “tic-tac-toe” placement on the current Falcon 9.
“You actually want the engines around the perimeter at the tank, otherwise you are carrying that load from those engines that are not on the skin,” she says. “You've got to carry them out to the skin, because that is the primary load path for the launch vehicle.”