Spaceflight Insider

Falcon 9 second stage to be upgraded to ‘mini-BFR ship’

The latest version of the BFR design shows the upper stage, known as the Big Falcon Spaceship, with large control surfaces to aid its reentry process. Image Credit: SpaceX

The latest version of the BFR design shows the upper stage, known as the Big Falcon Spaceship, with large control surfaces to aid its reentry process. Image Credit: SpaceX

In the lead-up to the first flights of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket, the current second stage of the Falcon 9 is to be modified to test some of its key design features, according to a tweet from company CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX has previously stated it plans to start testing the second stage of the BFR, known as the Big Falcon Spaceship or BFS, as early as 2019 via short hops similar to the company’s Grasshopper program earlier in the decade. However, it appears an intermediate test phase is also in the works.

A view of the aft end of the Big Falcon Spaceship showing the actuated aft fins that will be used during atmospheric entry. Image Credit: SpaceX

A view of the aft end of the Big Falcon Spaceship showing the actuated aft fins that will be used during atmospheric entry. Image Credit: SpaceX

“Mod to SpaceX tech tree build: Falcon 9 second stage will be upgraded to be like mini-BFR Ship,” Musk tweeted on Nov. 7, 2018.

The exact details of this announcement are not yet known, however, in an answer to Twitter followers’ questions about when this might occur, Musk said the company is aiming for the first orbital flight of this modification by June 2019. What is also unclear is if this will be a one-off test or an upgrade to some or all second stages.

The BFS as currently designed looks similar in shape to the U.S. Space Shuttle. However, rather than wings, there are large control surfaces to help with drag and orientation during atmospheric entry and guide the vehicle to a predetermined spot, such as a landing zone.

Because the current Merlin Vacuum engine on the Falcon 9 second stage is not designed to operate in the atmosphere, actual propulsive landings with the stage is not expected to happen.

“Won’t land propulsively for those reasons,” Musk tweeted. “Ultra light heat shield [and] high Mach control surfaces are what we can’t test well without orbital entry. I think we have a handle on propulsive landings.”

As of September 2018, the fully-reuseable BFR system is expected to consist of a booster and spaceship totaling about 387 feet (118 meters) tall and 30 feet (9 meters) wide. The booster is designed to land propulsively back at its launch mount after the first phase of flight, while the spaceship would continue into orbit and perform its mission—deploy satellites, send cargo and people to Mars, or fly people to the Moon—before returning to Earth.

SpaceX and Musk have stated that the BFR could replace the company’s current fleet of rockets and spaceships once operational. One of its first missions is expected to be the recently announced “#dearMoon” project, which would involve sending Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and six to eight artists on a circumlunar flight no earlier than 2023.

An overview of the Big Falcon Spaceship. Video courtesy of SpaceX



Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity. He met with members of the SpaceFlight Insider team during the flight of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket with the MUOS-4 satellite. Richardson joined our team shortly thereafter. His passion for space ignited when he watched Space Shuttle Discovery launch into space Oct. 29, 1998. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized his true calling was communicating to others about space. Since joining SpaceFlight Insider in 2015, Richardson has worked to increase the quality of our content, eventually becoming our managing editor. @TheSpaceWriter

Reader Comments

The speed of SpaceX’s R&D efforts can be breathtaking, especially in comparison to Boeing’s snail like progress on the Space Launch System.

I was suggesting this months ago 🙂 This looks like the perfect way to test a revolutionary concept. I assume the mini-BFR will have parachutes for landing, so that the vehicle can be fully examined afterward though not to be re-used. And it would be the ideal situation to test multiple reflights of the same booster with minimal maintenance between flights.

If it reentered with a Crew Dragon attached it would be more aerodynamic and could possibly soft land using the SuperDracos.

Seems doable like Mr. Musk says.

James Lunar Miner

Meanwhile, some serious science folks have CO2 pollution concerns about our Home Planet that are far more important and realistic than trying to foolishly use fleets of inefficient and low Isp fossil fuel powered massive rockets to haul huge amounts of fossil propellant into LEO in order to “send cargo and people to Mars”:

“A normal transatlantic round-trip flight can release around 1.6 tonnes of CO2, according to Nicholas’s study – almost as much as the average yearly emissions of one person in India. This also highlights the inequality of climate change: while everyone will be affected, only a minority of humans fly and even fewer people take planes often.”

And, “There are groups of scientists and members of the public who have decided to give up flying or who fly less. Virtual meetings, holidaying in local destinations or using trains instead of planes all are ways to cut down.”

From: “Should we really all fly less?”
By Diego Arguedas Ortiz November 5, 2018

James Lunar Miner

“In January 2016, senior UK government officials were reported to have registered their growing fears that ‘a new cold war’ was now unfolding in Europe: ‘It really is a new Cold War out there.'”

From: “Cold War II” Wikipedia

If NASA and American companies are going to successfully lead the world in finding, mining, and using the resources of the Moon, Ceres, 4 Vesta, 16 Psyche, and other useful asteroids to help us win our Cold War II, we are going to need large and highly efficient reusable Landers.

If we don’t want to needlessly damage our Home Planet’s atmosphere and waste money, time, propellant, resources, and energy in making and hauling inefficient,low energy, and low 360 Isp to 465 Isp chemical propellants around in Cislunar Space and out to the asteroids, we will instead need to build propellant efficient 900+ Isp nuclear thermal rocket engine based propulsion systems for our large reusable Landers.

Obviously, we will also need very large and super propellant efficient electric space propulsion systems with a 3,000 Isp to 14,000+ Isp for our reusable cargo hauling space tugs and other spaceships.

Elon Musk has done as much as anyone to reduce CO2 emissions. He has produced the first practical electric cars a decade earlier than traditional manufacturers would have done. He is involved in large scale manufacturing of solar panels and batteries, and his Boring company will provide energy efficient transport. In the future the production of methanol from atmospheric CO2 using solar power will be needed for return trips from Mars. This technology could be used on Earth as well.

CO2 is plant food; just plant a tree.

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