SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 debuts with launch for Bangladesh (and rocket landing)

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Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s first Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket lifts off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX sent a Bangladeshi telecommunications satellite into orbit today atop what CEO Elon Musk calls the “last major version” of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, which is designed to carry astronauts before the year is out.

But Musk has yet more tweaks up his sleeve: He’s aiming to make the Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket — including its nose cone and second stage — fully reusable, with a turnaround time of as little as 24 hours.

“For those that know rockets, this is a ridiculously hard thing,” he told reporters during a pre-launch briefing. “It’s taken us, man, since 2002 — 16 years of extreme effort and many, many iterations and thousands of small but important development changes to get to where we think this is even possible.”

The Block 5 era began with today’s liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:14 p.m. ET (1:14 p.m. PT).

Launch had been originally scheduled for the day before, but SpaceX’s flight control computer triggered an abort sequence with less than a minute left in Thursday’s countdown. SpaceX said the problem had to do with a software setting that was left over from a previous test sequence and hadn’t been properly reset.

Today’s countdown, in contrast, went as smooth as silk all the way to liftoff.

Minutes after launch, the rocket’s first-stage booster flew itself to a touchdown on an oceangoing platform known as “Of Course I Still Love You.” Meanwhile, the second stage sent the Bangabandhu Satellite-1 to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Bangabandhu-1 will be Bangladesh’s first geostationary communications satellite, and will provide satellite TV services as well as broadband connectivity and emergency communications services to the South Asian nation and the surrounding region.

As important as the payload is, proving out the Block 5 design is arguably just as important: The rocket has been upgraded with a more powerful version of SpaceX’s Merlin engine, more resilient thermal protection and more streamlined landing legs. One of its trademark identifying features is a black interstage section in the middle, which is made of unpainted carbon composite material.

Many of the changes from Block 4 are under the hood, Musk said.

“The key to Block 5 is, it’s designed to do 10 or more flights with no refurbishment between each flight,” he told reporters. With periodic refurbishment, a single first-stage booster could be capable of executing on the order of 100 flights before its retirement, he said.

Quick turnaround is another SpaceX goal. By the end of next year, Musk aims to demonstrate that a single Falcon 9 booster could be used for two orbital launches within 24 hours. “That will be a very, very exciting outcome,” he said

The Block 5 model is also designed to satisfy NASA’s requirements for launching astronauts as well as the Air Force’s requirements for national security payloads. If all goes according to plan, Block 5 rockets will start sending test crews to the International Space Station later this year.

Musk said there’ll be no Block 6. Instead, SpaceX’s rocket design team will focus on the BFR, the “Big Frickin’ Rocket” that’s meant to be capable of carrying payloads and people to the moon and Mars within the next decade. The spaceship portion of the BFR system could begin short-hop testing, similar to the Falcon 9’s early Grasshopper test flights, as early as next year.

There will be additional “minor refinements” in Block 5, Musk said. SpaceX aims to recover the Falcon 9’s nose cone, or fairing, by having it deploy parafoils and sail into a giant net deployed from a ship. Even the second stage could be recovered from orbit, Musk said, but the requisite thermal protection system are yet to be developed.

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