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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 website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @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.

James Lunar Miner

Trees are wonderful, but cannot be the whole answer for our CO2 pollution and ongoing damaging of the Ozone Layer.


“There’s just not enough room on this planet to have the farmland it takes to feed the world plus the space to plant the necessary number of trees.”

And, “In other words, many of us would starve if we tried using trees to solve our emissions problem.”

From: “There’s so much CO2 in the atmosphere that planting trees can no longer save us”
By Rob Ludacer and Jessica Orwig Oct. 26, 2018

James Lunar Miner

In the real world, European political folks seem to be much more concerned about fossil fuel caused CO2 pollution than they are in financing super costly Mars colonies that would be based on endlessly increasing the Home Planet’s CO2 pollution and Ozone Layer damage from large and ever growing fleets of fossil fueled BFRs, Falcon Heavies, and other fossil fuel based launchers.


“STRASBOURG (Reuters) – European Union lawmakers on Wednesday backed the region’s first ever curbs on carbon dioxide emissions from trucks, calling for a cut of at least 35 percent by 2030, despite protests from manufacturers.”

From: “EU lawmakers back at least 35 percent CO2 cut from trucks by 2030”
By Richard Lough 11/14/2018

Environmentally and politically sustainable space exploration, propellant efficient Lunar resource mining, and the wise use of Lunar resources in Cislunar Space in order to provide real environmental, military, economic, and Geo-political benefits for folks on Earth are critical and unavoidable space issues.

James Lunar Miner

Mr Elon Musk has endlessly promoted his energy weak, propellant inefficient, low 380 Isp, and endlessly CO2 polluting fossil fuel rocket engine powered massive BFR as the be all answer for space transportation needs.

In the tough world of Geo-political space transportation leadership there is an important question. “Will Russia, America, India, China, or some other nation be the first to develop a flight proven and highly propellant efficient, high energy, 900+ Isp nuclear thermal rocket engine for excellent performance third stages and reusable Lunar Landers?”


“Elon Musk is old news—or rather, old tech. That’s the take by Vladimir Koshlakov, the head of Russia’s Keldysh Research Center and a man who want to build a nuclear-powered rocket (you heard that right).”

And, “The TEM Russian nuclear engine being developed today is a direct successor to the RD-0410. The project relies on modern materials and construction methods and borrows from the work done by both Soviet and American scientists.”

From: “Russia Might Actually Build a Nuclear-Powered Rocket”
By Avery Thompson 11/16/2018

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