SpaceX company today, May 10, plans to make a conclusion to the geostationary orbit of the Bangladeshi communication satellite Bangabandhu-1. It would seem that the launch should be routine, only in fact this event will be a new milestone in the development of the space industry, as the company is going to use the new modified version of the Falcon 9 with the Block 5 upper stage as the launch vehicle. If we believe earlier voiced statements, the unit promises to increase the level of multi-reacquisition of the Falcon 9 missiles, making them really cost-effective and opening the door to the far space for the company and its customers.
The whole essence of the reusable carrier rockets boils down to eq nomii money: instead of creating an entirely new missiles for every mission SpaceX can just plant the spent first stage of the rocket, to carry out the necessary maintenance exhaust unit, set it a new payload and launch into space again. Many experts, including the CEO of SpaceX, Ilona Mask, use as an example the parallel between reusable missiles and airplanes. Agree, air travel would be much more expensive if you had to create a new airplane before each flight.
Until today, the landing of the exhausted stages of SpaceX rockets, despite all its entertainment, which is a sin to hide, did not save the company a lot of money. At the same time, the maximum number of starts of the already fulfilled stages was reduced to two. And after each launch, we have to attract a whole legion of engineers to carry out a thorough and costly inspection and replacement of parts that eat up part of the savings earned by the company in building new missiles. The break between starts in this case can drag on for many months.
“It's possible that they are spending more money on rocket recovery right now than building new ones,” Greg Otry, an associate professor at the University of Southern California specializing in new space companies, commented on The Verge's portal.
The new Falcon 9 Block 5 will be able to change this. The stage has undergone numerous upgrades aimed at reducing the cost of restoration and reducing the time between launches. Outwardly, Block 5 differs from Block 4 only in the presence of black elements in the design. The color changed the landing strips, the intermediate compartment between the stages, titanium stabilizers and the garage – the fuselage element, which protects the wiring and missile pipelines. Of the technical improvements, Block 5 received more powerful Merlin engines, which allowed it to increase thrust to 8130 kN compared to 7600 kN from the previous version. Structurally, they are now installed so that they are much easier to get to when servicing. They have also received a new thermal screening, which will protect them from overheating. In addition, the titanium lattice stabilizers have changed, which from now on will not be ignited when the stage returns to Earth. Thanks to this upgrade, the new Falcon 9 will be able to re-launch within 48 hours of returning to Earth. At least in theory.
If all of these improvements really can shorten the time of servicing the Falcon 9 missiles, then the company can finally start saving money. In addition, Block 5 promises to increase Falcon 9's performance without significant infusions in subsequent serious upgrades. Together, this will contribute to the company's larger profits and, as a result, the implementation of more ambitious plans, including the launch of several thousand satellites to create a new satellite network, and the creation of a new giant BFR rocket, through which the company plans to send people to the moon and Mars.
Everything for Mars
According to earlier statements by Mask, Falcon 9 with Block 5 can be used up to 100 times without significant maintenance costs. It should be admitted that the statement is quite optimistic, given that the rocket during takeoff and landing has to move at a speed higher than the speed of sound, as well as subjected to extremely high temperatures and loads. Moreover, given that Mask often likes to exaggerate, the more real number of repeated launches of new missiles, according to Andy Lambert, vice president of the production department of SpaceX, will be 10. But even the ability to launch the same missile 10 times will significantly reduce production costs for the preparation of Falcon 9.
Simultaneous landing of two side accelerators of the first stage of the Falcon Heavy booster rocket at Cape Canaveral
However, one increase in the number of possible launches will not be enough to save and accumulate development. SpaceX will also have to reduce the number of employees.
“Everyone talks about an airplane as a model of reusability. But for some reason everyone forgets that for the construction of one aircraft does not require an entire army of employees. To do this, several dozen experts are enough. “
Excessive labor costs became one of the reasons why NASA closed the program of reusable space shuttles. They were too expensive to run. And since the upgrade of Block 5 will shorten the time to restore the steps, it means that SpaceX will not need too many employees to prepare missiles for re-starts.
Until the end it remains unclear how much SpaceX will be able to save money in long-term perspective with such changes. The company itself is unlikely to provide any specific figures on how much it spends on its workforce, but reports that it intends to keep the basic cost of the Falcon 9 rocket, which is 62 million dollars, at the same level. The same Otrie estimates the cost of production of each first stage – a 14-storey rocket section, which will be sent into space and come back – somewhere in the 30-40 million dollars. The filling of the launch vehicle is estimated by the Mask himself at only a few hundred thousand dollars. If the company succeeds in significantly reducing the cost of its labor, then in this case it can reduce the cost of manufacturing one missile at almost half of its current cost. Nevertheless, the same Autrey is not so optimistic about this forecast. At least for now.
“I think that in reality we are still far from such indicators. But I'm pretty sure that this will save 10 to 15 million dollars easily. “
By the way, the forecasts of the same Mask are very similar. He talked about a 30 percent reduction in spending.
If SpaceX does it here, then the next task for the company will be to increase the frequency of launches. More starts – more annual profits. And apparently, SpaceX is already actively working on this. In 2017, the company produced 18 launches, setting a personal record and surpassing the number of launches by many other companies. This year, SpaceX has already produced 8 launches. By the same time last year, there were only 5.
All additional proceeds can go straight to the development of BFR, which SpaceX plans to assemble in the port of Los Angeles, as well as several thousand satellites that the company will need in the future. Recall that recently SpaceX received the approval of the Communications Commission (FCC) to launch the first constellation of satellites of the future Starlink Network. However, the FCC has established a requirement for the company to launch at least half of the 4,425 satellites for the next 6 years. And according to experts, Mask will not be able to launch its Network without Block 5.
Another important aspect of the new Block 5 stage is that it will not be subjected to any changes to a greater degree. According to Mask, this is the last major upgrade of the missile, and after it the company is going to focus its attention on developing a giant BFR rocket.
“This is the most modernized version of SpaceX's Falcon 9 ever produced,” Laura Forchyk, head of Astralytical, who advises on space development, commented on The Verge's portal.
This is exactly what it has long dreamed of Aerospace Agency NASA: Falcon 9 with Block 5 will be used to deliver American astronauts to the International Space Station. In other words, the new version of the missile was built taking into account all requirements of the space agency to meet all safety standards for manned space flights. True, NASA's stringent safety requirements require at least 7 successful launches, without introducing any changes to the design of the missile, before Ilona Mask's company is allowed to carry out missions with the participation of astronauts. However, this requirement does not apply to the SLS space launch system – only one test launch is planned here, after which the agency plans to start using it for manned missions.
Launch of Falcon 9. Long-exposure photo
Using a NASA-certified rocket can significantly help SpaceX in attracting new customers. The company has already been seen several times in making minor changes in the technical features of its missiles between launches, and this has plagued many in the space industry, especially in the launch market of satellites used for national security. NASA and other old people of the space industry, as a rule, rarely make any significant changes in the designs of their missiles, which is what most often becomes the key factor in choosing a contractor. With the new Falcon 9 Block 5 missile, all skepticism can evaporate, experts say. And the increase in productivity will open for the company such a welcome market of contracts related to national security.