Long Delayed Canadian Satellite to be Launched on Risky Falcon 9 Development Flight

It’s been a long, hard road to space for Canada’s CASSIOPE satellite, which now sits atop a Falcon 9 launch vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California waiting for engineers to resolve anomalies discovered in the rocket’s first stage engines.

The 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) spacecraft was originally booked in 2005 on SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 1 rocket, with an expected launch in 2008. Delays followed, and then CASSIOPE was shifted to the much larger Falcon 9 launch vehicle after SpaceX canceled the Falcon 1 program. The spacecraft spent years in a storage facility awaiting its turn.

CASSIOPE is now set for launch on a “development flight” of the new Falcon 9 version 1.1, which features about a half dozen significant changes over its predecessor. Any time a launch provider makes even one significant alteration in a booster, it increase the chances of something going wrong. To make a multiple ones and test them all at once involves major risks.

The Falcon 9 upgrades include:

  • more powerful Merlin 1-D engines that are 56 percent more powerful than Merlin 1-C engines
  • a different first-stage engine configuration with a center engine and eight others around the perimeter
  • stretched fuel tanks than are 60 percent longer
  • payload shroud being flown for the first time
  • upgraded avionics and software
  • simplified stage separation system.

The table below shows the differences between the two Falcon 9 versions.

Falcon 9 Comparison

VersionFalcon 9 v1.0Falcon 9 v1.1
Stage 19 × Merlin 1C9 × Merlin 1D
Stage 21 × Merlin 1C Vacuum1 × Merlin 1D Vacuum
Max height53 m (174 ft)69.2 m (227 ft)
Diameter3.7 m (12 ft)3.7 m (12 ft)
Initial first stage thrust3,807 kN5,885 kN
Fairing diameterN/A5.2 m (17.1 ft)
Payload to LEO8,500–9,000 kg
(18,739-19,842 lb)
13,150 kg
(28,991 lb)
Payload to GTO3,400 (7,496 lb)4,850 (10,692 lb)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been downplaying expectations, stressing that it is a development flight that could fail. “Upcoming Falcon 9 demo has a lot of new technology, so the probability of failure is significant,” Musk Tweeted on Tuesday.

In addition to changes in the launch vehicle, the upcoming flight will feature the first launch of a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg and the rocket’s first attempt to place a satellite in to polar orbit. The launch vehicle’s first stage also will attempt a controlled descent to the ocean, a crucial first step in SpaceX’s effort to development a reusable booster that can fly back to the launch site.

Musk has said that CASSIOPE’s builders have only paid about 20 percent of the standard $56.5 million cost of the Falcon 9 launch. That would translate to a cost of approximately $11.3 million. That sounds like a bargain, but then Falcon 1 launches were being advertised at $5.9 million in 2005 when the original contract was signed. And that doesn’t take into account the costs of the five-year launch delay.

SpaceX has a lot riding on this mission. The company needs to have an upgraded Falcon 9 in order to begin to clear the large backlog of communications satellites on its manifest. To date, the Falcon 9 has only launched into low Earth orbit, not the much higher geosynchronous orbits where communications satellites reside.

Musk has pressed the U.S. government to allow SpaceX to bid on military and national security launches. However, Air Force officials delayed the effort, in part because the early version of Falcon 9 rocket SpaceX was flying would not be the same version used to lift their satellites. In terms of reliability, SpaceX is starting back at square one with the Falcon 9 version 1.1.