SpaceX Launches New Falcon 9 To Be Used For ‘Space Taxi’; Falcon Heavy Delayed
SpaceX launched its updated Falcon 9 Friday afternoon after a last-minute scrub Thursday, marking the first flight for a rocket that eventually will ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for NASA.
Friday’s launch of the Falcon 9 block 5 delivered a satellite owned by Bangladesh into orbit. Its reusable first-stage booster successfully landed on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The launch also marked SpaceX’s ninth of the year as part of its plans for 30 total in 2018.
SpaceX said the block 5 model is “designed to be capable of 10 or more flights with very limited refurbishment” and is the last upgrade to its Falcon 9 series as it looks to focus on its deep-space rocket, the BFR.
The Falcon 9 block 5 is meant for quicker reuse and reportedly has a stronger heat shield and new landing legs, among other improvements.
By shortening the turnaround time back into space and reducing the preparations needed for a new mission, SpaceX could lower the cost of launches even further. On Thursday, CEO Elon Musk boasted that each block 5 rocket could be reused 100 times and slash launch costs to $ 5 million-$ 6 million from $ 50 million-$ 60 million.
The Falcon 9 block 5 is also the rocket that SpaceX plans to use for its “space taxi” program for NASA, which has also contracted with Boeing (BA) to take astronauts to the ISS and back, ending its reliance on Russia’s space program.
SpaceX has said it plans an initial crewed test flight of its space taxi later this year, though it could slip to next year.
Meanwhile, SpaceX has pushed back the first flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket for a paying customer by several months to October.
The Falcon Heavy had its maiden flight in February, sending up a Telsa (TSLA) Roadster and demonstrating a new maneuver for the Air Force that showed the rocket can directly insert a payload into its final orbit.
SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO Musk said before the launch that a successful test flight could set up the Falcon Heavy’s first launch for a paying customer just three to six months later.
But due to ongoing qualification testing and engineering reviews, the first Falcon Heavy launch for the Air Force slipped from June to October.
The Air Force mission is part of the Space Test Program-2 to test military and scientific research satellites.
Altogether, the Falcon Heavy will launch with 25 spacecraft inside its nose cone, including six weather research satellites and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Demonstration and Science Experiments spacecraft.
SpaceX also plans to use the Falcon Heavy to launch an Arabsat satellite built by Lockheed Martin (LMT) sometime at the end of the year, marking its second mission for a paying customer.
The Falcon Heavy is 230 feet tall and consists of three Falcon 9 first-stage cores. Thrust from its 27 engines is equivalent to 18 Boeing 747s, making it two times more powerful than any other rocket operating today, according to SpaceX.
It also has double the payload capacity of the Delta IV Heavy made by the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance.
Boeing shares dipped 0.5% on the stock market today. Lockheed fell 0.1%.
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