SpaceX is set to launch the Block 5 version of its flagship rocket, the Falcon 9, at 4:12 pm Eastern on Thursday, an event that signals that reusable rockets are here to stay—or, rather, to boldly go. This upgraded version of the Falcon is expected to launch, land, and re-launch multiple times with little down time in between flights.
Today’s mission marks the first time SpaceX has returned to Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center following the epic maiden flight of its massive rocket, the Falcon Heavy. That highly anticipated launch captivated crowds across the world on February 6, as it ascended through the atmosphere, carrying Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla roadster (and a dummy driver, Starman) into space.
Now, SpaceX will make its long-awaited transition to the Block 5—which may not look incredibly different than previous versions, but packs a much bigger punch: 1.8 million pounds of thrust, which amounts to a 7 percent increase in power. The rocket will lift off sometime during a planned two-hour and 25-minute window and ferry the Bangabandhu-1 satellite to space. Then the first stage booster will return to Earth, where it’ll try to stick a landing on the company’s drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, waiting in the Atlantic Ocean.
(The nearly 8,000-pound Bangabandhu-1 satellite will bring commercial communications capabilities to a rural region of Asia for up to 15 years after being placed into orbit. It’s the first satellite for Bangladesh, making it the 58th country to operate its own satellite in geostationary orbit.)
SpaceX’s philosophy has always been that a fully (and rapidly) reusable rocket is the key to dramatically reducing the cost of spaceflight. Currently, a Falcon 9 rocket costs around $62 million, and while SpaceX is currently successfully reusing first-stage boosters—the most expensive portion of the rocket—Elon Musk would like to get to the point where much more is reused, essentially ensuring that fuel becomes the only major expense. To that end, SpaceX is also attempting to recover and reuse the payload fairings—the protective nose cone that shields the rocket’s cargo as it travels through the atmosphere—with the help of a new West Coast based recovery vehicle dubbed Mr. Steven.
The vessel, outfitted with a claw-like catcher’s mitt was first employed earlier this year during a mission to launch the Paz satellite. The fairing is an expensive piece of hardware, which historically has been discarded, costs about 10 percent of the overall price tag of the Falcon 9, so being able to recover and reuse it would be a win for SpaceX. Currently, after separation from the rocket’s upper stage, the two halves of the fairing navigate back to Earth before a parachute deploys and they land in the ocean.
So far Mr. Steven has been unsuccessful in its attempts to snag the fairings, but SpaceX gathers data from each attempt, and will ideally make a successful catch in the near future.
The previous version of the Falcon 9, dubbed the full thrust variant, was only capable of flying two or three times at most. If SpaceX is to meet its ultimate goal of flying daily, a rocket that can only fly twice is not practical. Here’s where the Block 5 is crucial.
The Block 5, a culmination of more than 10 years of development, marks the final design iteration for the Falcon 9 and will be the version the company relies on as its workhorse for the foreseeable future. It’s designed to re-fly as soon as 48 hours after landing—a dramatic reduction in the downtime SpaceX rockets currently require.
The Block 5 accomplishes this thanks to a set of upgrades including improved engines, a more durable interstage, titanium grid fins, and an improved thermal protection system, which hold up better to the stresses of launch. And gone are the days of the all-white Falcon—the spiffy new interstage, along with a set of new, retractable landing legs are painted black. According to SpaceX, the Block 5 is capable of flying 10 times or more, needing only light refurbishments, and up to 100 times before the booster is retired.
SpaceX plans to use the Block 5 to launch astronauts to the space station as early as 2019. In order to achieve that goal, it has to fly the Block 5 at least seven times without making any alterations to the design, and there are around 20 launches left on the schedule this year. This is shaping up to be one slick-looking space taxi.