The Falcon 9 is a medium- to heavy-lift launch vehicle designed and built by Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). It is the first, and only, rocket to fly and soft-land a first stage after it has sent payloads to orbit.
The Falcon 9 is also the first commercially designed and built vehicle to launch spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). The Falcon 9 has launched satellites for commercial customers, cargo for the ISS, and was awarded a contract by the U.S. Air Force in 2016.
Falcon 9 has flown successfully 27 times, with one in-flight failure in 2015 and one ground test anomaly on September 1, 2016, both of which resulted in the loss of the vehicle and the payload. Vehicle operations were been suspended until the cause of the anomaly was identified and rectified. Operations in Florida will also need to await repairs to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 or transfer to Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A.
At present, the Falcon 9 is slated to launch the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS in 2018 under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). SpaceX also plans to launch a “Heavy” version of the vehicle, which will employ three Falcon 9 stages for payloads going beyond low Earth orbit.
SpaceX has launched Falcon 9 from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as well as Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX is also in the process of modifying Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A–the complex formerly used for Apollo and Space Shuttle Launches–to support Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch operations. The transition of Florida launch operations from SLC-40 to LC-39A may take place in 2017.
Falcon 9 lifts off when all nine Merlin engines come up to full power. Pitch, law, and roll control are all handled by the engines, which are gimbal mounted. The first stage burns for 162 seconds before burning out and being jettisoned. Following first stage separation, the second stage Merlin ignites and takes the payload to a parking orbit before igniting again to place the payload into its final orbit. Once the second stage orbit ignites, the payload fairing is jettisoned.
After being jettisoned, the first stage initiates a flip maneuver and begins a powered return back to Earth. Using a combination of reaction control thrusters, forward-mounted grid fins, and thrust from one to three of the main engines, the first stage flies either to a remotely-operated ship in the Atlantic Ocean, or to land. Upon arrival, the vehicle deploys a set of landing legs and sets itself down upright.
Launching only from LC-39A, Falcon Heavy will consist of three Falcon 9 cores sporting a total of 27 engines. Like Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy’s gimbaled Merlin engines will perform pitch, yaw, and roll maneuvers as the rocket heads out over the Atlantic. The port and starboard cores, acting as boosters, will burn out first and separate from the remaining core. Once separated, the two booster cores will perform their own “flip” maneuvers to begin re-entry and landing sequences. The center core will burn slightly longer before shutting down and separating. Upon separation, the center core will also return to Earth and the second stage will send the payload to orbit.
The Falcon 9 launch vehicle is a two-stage vehicle using kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOx) propellants for both stages. The first stage employs nine SpaceX Merlin engines, while its second stage flies with a single vacuum-rated Merlin engine. The first stage total thrust is rated at 1,710,000 lbf (7,607 kN) of thrust at sea level; the second-stage Merlin is rated at 210,000 lbf (934 kN) thrust in vacuum. The rocket uses a 17-foot (5.2 m) wide, 43-foot (13.1 m) tall payload fairing except when flying SpaceX’s own Dragon spacecraft. Overall, the Falcon 9 is 229.6 feet (70 m) tall with a stage diameter of 12 feet (3.7 m).
Falcon 9’s first stage includes two innovations: Chilled (“deep cryo”) liquid oxygen and cooled RP-1 fuel to increase propellant density in the upper stage, and the ability to perform a controlled, autonomous landing on a free-floating ship at sea or at a specific location on land. The landing process is part of a plan to eventually re-use the Falcon 9 core stages. The first payload scheduled to fly on a flown and refurbished core stage is SES-10.
Falcon Heavy comprises three Falcon 9 core stages generating a total of 5,130,000 lbf (22,819 kN) of thrust at sea level, plus the Falcon 9 second stage with 210,000 lbf (934 kN) of thrust in vacuum. The vehicle uses the same payload fairing as Falcon 9. SpaceX anticipates recovering all three Falcon Heavy stages – the port and starboard cores, which act as boosters, and then the first stage. Falcon Heavy is the same height as Falcon 9 (229.6 ft / 70 m) with a width of 39.9 feet (12.2 m) across the three cores.
Cape Canaveral AFS SLC-40
Vandenberg Air Force Base SLC-4
Kennedy Space Center LC-39A
SpaceX South Texas Launch Site
Falcon 9 Flight 1
June 4, 2010
To date, SpaceX has launched cargo flights to the ISS as well as satellites for domestic and international commercial customers. SpaceX lists 35 Falcon 9 flights on its manifest as of January 2017, including missions for NASA. SpaceX also lists six pending Falcon Heavy flights for the U.S. Air Force and commercial customers.