SES to Fly Satellite on Upgraded Falcon 9 as SpaceX Plans Barge Upgrade

Falcon 9's Merlin 1D engines in an octoweb structure. (Credit: SpaceX)
Falcon 9’s Merlin 1D engines in an octoweb structure. (Credit: SpaceX)

Satellite operator SES has agreed to be the guinea pig for SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 rocket later this year. Meanwhile, SpaceX is upgrading its barge where first stages will land to handle rough seas.

The decision comes after a review of the risks of launching the SES 9 satellite with rocket engines operating at higher thrust for the first time….

The closely-held Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch company has not disclosed what physical upgrades are present in the more powerful engines, or how much additional thrust the powerplants will generate.

The nine Merlin 1D booster engines are arranged in an “octaweb” pattern on the base of the Falcon 9 rocket, and a single Merlin engine optimized for firing in space powers the Falcon 9’s second stage….

SES chief technology officer Martin Halliwell told reporters in January that the upgrade gave the Merlin engines about 20 percent more thrust, according to a story published in Space News.

The upgrades to the barge come after rough seas prevented SpaceX from attempting a landing of a Falcon 9 first stage during the Feb. 11 launch of the government’s DSCOVR spacecraft. The rocket made a controlled descent into the ocean instead.

The vessel, which measures just 300 X 100 ft., with wings that extend the width to 170 ft., is not anchored and maintains position with station-keeping thrusters. One of these thrusters was out of action in the run-up to the delayed launch of the Falcon, which was carrying the Dscovr U.S. space weather satellite.

However, with the platform evidently vulnerable to extreme conditions and the pressing need to prove that recoveries are possible on a routine basis, SpaceX now intends to equip the vessel with additional station-keeping capability. It is not clear whether this involves adding thrusters or bolstering the existing set of four units. Other changes to improve seaworthiness may also be included. Musk comments that the company is “planning a significant upgrade of the droneship for future missions to handle literally anything.”

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