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SpaceX Test-fires Upgraded Falcon 9 Core for Three Minutes

The current version of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket features nine Merlin 1-C engines in a three-by-three configuration. Credit: SpaceX photo

WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) on July 14 test fired the core stage of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket that will be used to launch Canada’s Cassiope space weather satellite this September, a company spokeswoman confirmed.

“The recently tested booster is the first stage for SpaceX’s upcoming next-generation Falcon 9 demonstration flight for MDA and their Cassiope mission,” SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra said in a July 15 email. “The same updated design will apply to all Falcon 9 flights moving forward.” 

The test lasted “for approximately three minutes, simulating what the booster may experience in flight before stage separation,” Ra said. 

Cassiope is a small satellite built by Richmond, British Columbia-based MDA Corp. for the Canadian Space Agency.

SpaceX founder and chief executive officer Elon Musk first announced the test on Twitter.

“Just completed full mission duration firing of next gen Falcon 9 booster,” Musk wrote in a July 15 Twitter post. “[Very] proud of the boost stage team for overcoming many tough issues.”

SpaceX test fired Falcon 9 v1.1 core stage for 112 seconds June 12 at its McGregor, Texas, test site.

Ra declined to explain what the “tough issues” were that Musk referred to in his tweet. 

“The details of SpaceX’s testing program are considered proprietary,” Ra wrote in her email.

SpaceX has been testing this integrated core stage — which uses 9 kerosene-fueled Merlin 1-D engines in an octagonal layout as an upgrade to the three-by-three, tic-tac-toe grid of Merlin 1-C engines used on the current Falcon 9 — for more than a month.

A June 1 test lasted only 10 seconds. A subsequent test, video of which the company uploaded to YouTube June 10, lasted 112 seconds. No video of the latest test has appeared on SpaceX’s YouTube channel.

Falcon 9 v1.1, besides being the first SpaceX vehicle scheduled to launch a commercial communications satellite to geostationary orbit, is also a big part of the company’s plans to develop a reusable space rocket. 

On a March 28 conference call with the media, after the company’s Dragon space capsule returned from its second space station cargo delivery, Musk said SpaceX would expand its reusable rocket tests this year by attempting to steer a Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage to a soft water-landing after a launch. He did not say when this test would take place.

Meanwhile, if SpaceX successfully launches Cassiope, it will clear a contractual hurdle required by its first commercial geostationary customer, SES of Luxembourg, to launch that company’s SES-8 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. 

Commercial Launches for Orbcomm of Fort Lee, N.J., and Thailand’s Thai Comm would follow, as would a third cargo run to the international space station for NASA. In all, SpaceX has four more launches left on its manifest for 2013, two of which are to geostationary transfer orbit, where most commercial communications satellites are dropped off before using onboard propulsion to maneuver into their orbital slots.

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