Falcon 9 Full Thrust

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Falcon 9 Full Thrust
ORBCOMM-2 (23802549782).jpg
Launch of the first Falcon 9 Full Thrust flight, Falcon 9 Flight 20, carrying 11 Orbcomm satellites to orbit. The first stage was recovered at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station LZ-1 following the first successful Falcon 9 landing.
Function Orbital medium-lift launch vehicle
Manufacturer SpaceX
Country of origin United States
Cost per launch $62M for up to 5,500 kg (12,100 lb) to GTO[1]
Height 70 m (230 ft) with payload fairing[2]
Diameter 3.66 m (12.0 ft)[3]
Mass 549,054 kg (1,210,457 lb)[3]
Stages 2
Payload to LEO (28.5°)
  • Expendable: 22,800 kg (50,300 lb)[3]
  • Reusable: more than 13,150 kg (28,990 lb)[4]
  • PAF structural limitation: 10,886 kg (24,000 lb)[2]
Payload to GTO (27°)
  • Expendable: 8,300 kg (18,300 lb)[3]
  • Reusable: at least 5,300 kg (11,700 lb)[5][6]
Payload to Mars 4,020 kg (8,860 lb)[3]
Associated rockets
Family Falcon 9
Derivatives Falcon Heavy
Launch history
Status Active
Launch sites
Total launches 5
Successes 5
First flight 22 December 2015
Notable payloads Dragon
First stage
Engines 9 Merlin 1D
Thrust Sea level: 7,607 kN (1,710,000 lbf)[3]
Vacuum: 8,227 kN (1,850,000 lbf)[3]
Specific impulse Sea level: 282 seconds[4][dated info]
Vacuum: 311 seconds[4][dated info]
Burn time 162 seconds[3]
Fuel Subcooled LOX / Chilled RP-1[7]
Second stage
Engines 1 Merlin 1D Vacuum
Thrust 934 kN (210,000 lbf)[3]
Specific impulse 348 seconds[3]
Burn time 397 seconds[3]
Fuel LOX / RP-1

Falcon 9 Full Thrust—also known as Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust, and earlier as Falcon 9 v1.2, Enhanced Falcon 9, Full-Performance Falcon 9, Upgraded Falcon 9, and Falcon 9 Upgrade—is the third major version of the SpaceX Falcon 9 orbital launch vehicle. Designed in 2014–2015, it began launch operations in December 2015, and has a large manifest of over 40 launches contracted over the following five years.

In December 2015, the Full Thrust version of the Falcon 9 was the first launch vehicle on an orbital trajectory to successfully vertically-land a first stage and recover the rocket, following an extensive technology development program in 2011–2015 that had developed some of the technology on Falcon 9 v1.0 and Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle first stages.

Falcon 9 Full Thrust is a substantial upgrade over the older Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, which flew its last mission in January 2016. With uprated first- and second-stage engines, larger second-stage propellant tankage, and propellant densification, the vehicle can carry substantial payload to geostationary orbit and perform a propulsive landing for recovery.[8]


Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket with the SpaceX CRS-8 Dragon spacecraft on the launch pad in April 2016

As early as March 2014, SpaceX pricing and payload specifications published for the expendable Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket actually included about 30 percent more performance than the published price list indicated. At that time, the additional performance was reserved for SpaceX to conduct reusability testing with the Falcon 9 v1.1 while still achieving the specified payloads for customers. Many engineering changes to support reusability and recovery of the first stage had been made on this earlier v1.1 version. SpaceX indicated they had room to increase the payload performance for the Falcon 9 Full Thrust, or decrease launch price, or both.[9]

In 2015, SpaceX announced a number of modifications to the previous version Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle. The new rocket was known internally for a while as Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust,[10] but was also known under a variety of names including Falcon 9 v1.2, Enhanced Falcon 9, Full-Performance Falcon 9,[11] Upgraded Falcon 9,[12] and Falcon 9 Upgrade.[13][14] Since the first flight in late 2015, SpaceX has been referring to the "full thrust upgrade" Falcon 9 merely as Falcon 9.[15] However, it is the third major version of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle following the Falcon 9 v1.0 (launched 2010–2013) and the Falcon 9 v1.1 (launched 2013–January 2016). The Falcon 9 Full Thrust was first launched on 22 December 2015, on the 20th Falcon 9 flight.[12]

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell explained in March 2015 that the new design would result in streamlined production as well as improved performance:[16]

So, we got the higher thrust engines, finished development on that, we're in [qualification testing]. What we're also doing is modifying the structure a little bit. I want to be building only two versions, or two cores in my factory, any more than that would not be great from a customer perspective. It's about a 30% increase in performance, maybe a little more. What it does is it allows us to land the first stage for GTO missions on the drone ship.[11]

According to a SpaceX statement in May 2015, Falcon 9 Full Thrust would likely not require a recertification to launch for United States government contracts. Shotwell stated that "It is an iterative process [with the agencies]" and that "It will become quicker and quicker to certify new versions of the vehicle."[17]

SES S.A., a satellite owner and operator, announced plans in February 2015 to launch its SES-9 satellite on the first flight of the Falcon 9 Full Thrust.[18] In the event, SpaceX elected to launch SES-9 on the second flight of the Falcon 9 Full Thrust and to launch Orbcomm OG2's second constellation on the first flight. As Chris Bergin of NASASpaceFlight explained, SES-9 required a more complicated second-stage burn profile involving one restart of the second-stage engine, while the Orbcomm mission would "allow for the Second Stage to conduct additional testing ahead of the more taxing SES-9 mission."[19]

The upgraded first stage began acceptance testing at SpaceX's McGregor facility in September 2015. The first of two static fire tests was completed on 21 September 2015 and included the subcooled propellant and the improved Merlin 1D engines.[20] The rocket reached full throttle during the static fire and was scheduled for launch no earlier than 17 November 2015.[21]

Falcon 9 Full Thrust completed its maiden flight on 22 December 2015, carrying an Orbcomm 11-satellite payload to orbit and landing the rocket's first stage intact at SpaceX's Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral.[12] The second mission, SES-9, occurred on 4 March 2016.[22]

The US Air Force certified the upgraded version of the launch vehicle to be used on US military launches in January 2016, based on the one successful launch to date and the demonstrated "capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver NSS (national security space) satellites to orbit".[23]


Falcon 9 Full Thrust launch on March 4, 2016. The discarded first stage is in the lower right. The second stage is in the upper left, with the two parts of the jettisoned payload fairing.

A principal objective of the new design was to facilitate booster reusability for a larger range of missions, including delivery of large commsats to geosynchronous orbit.[24]

Like earlier versions of the Falcon 9, and like the Saturn series from the Apollo program, the presence of multiple first-stage engines can allow for mission completion even if one of the first-stage engines fails mid-flight.[25]

The full-thrust first stage booster could reach low Earth orbit as a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle if it is not carrying the upper stage and a heavy satellite.[26]

Falcon 9 FT can send 4020 kg (4 tonnes) to Mars.[27]

Modifications from previous model

Modifications in the upgraded version, relative to the previous version (Falcon 9 v1.1) include:

  • liquid oxygen subcooled to −340 °F (−207 °C; 66 K) and RP-1 cooled to 20 °F (−7 °C; 266 K)[7] for density (allowing more fuel and oxidizer to be stored in a given tank volume, as well as increasing the propellant mass flow through the turbopumps increasing thrust)[23]
  • upgraded structure in the first stage[13][28]
  • longer second stage propellant tanks[13]
  • longer and stronger interstage, housing the second stage engine nozzle, grid fins, and attitude thrusters[13][28]
  • overall launch vehicle length (with payload fairing) is now 70 m (229 ft), about 1.5 m (5 ft) taller than Falcon 9 v1.1[23]
  • pneumatic center pusher added to stage separation mechanism.[13] Designed to provide redundant "positive-force stage separation after latch release ... for added reliability ... to dramatically decrease the probability of re-contact between the stages following separation."[25]
  • design evolution of the grid fins[13][28]
  • modified Octaweb engine thrust structure[13]
  • upgraded landing legs[13][28]
  • Merlin 1D engine thrust increased[13] to the full-thrust variant of the Merlin 1D, taking advantage of the denser propellants achieved by subcooling. First stage thrust was originally advertised as 6,700 kN (1,500,000 lbf) rather than 5,800 kN (1,300,000 lbf) on Falcon 9 v1.1.[23] The rocket's true full thrust of 7,607 kN (1,710,000 lbf) was finally published on April 30, 2016.[3]
  • Merlin 1D vacuum thrust increased by subcooling the propellants.[13] The new second-stage engine was optimized for higher performance in vacuum through modifications such as a larger exhaust nozzle and an improved attitude control system.[25][29] Second stage thrust is now 934 kN (210,000 lbf).[3]
  • several small mass-reduction efforts.[30]

The modified design gained an additional 1.5 meters of height,[23] stretching to exactly 70 meters including payload fairing when fairings are used (the Dragon capsule version is somewhat shorter),[25] while gaining an overall performance increase of 33 percent.[13] The new first-stage engine has a much increased thrust-to-weight ratio.[29]

Vehicle description

Falcon 9 Full Thrust specifications and characteristics are as follows:[25]

Characteristic First stage Second stage
Height 70 m (230 ft), including both stages, interstage and fairing
Diameter 3.66 m (12.0 ft) 3.66 m (12.0 ft)
Structure type LOX tank: monocoque
Fuel tank: skin and stringer
LOX tank: monocoque
Fuel tank: skin and stringer
Structure material Aluminum lithium skin; aluminum domes Aluminum lithium skin; aluminum domes
Engines 9 × Merlin 1D 1 x Merlin 1D Vacuum
Engine type Liquid, gas generator Liquid, gas generator
Propellant Subcooled liquid oxygen, kerosene (RP-1) Liquid oxygen, kerosene (RP-1)
Engine nozzle Fixed, 16:1 expansion Fixed, 165:1 expansion
Engine designer/manufacturer SpaceX / SpaceX SpaceX / SpaceX
Thrust (stage total)[3] 7,607 kN (1,710,000 lbf) (sea level) 934 kN (210,000 lbf) (vacuum)
Propellant feed system Turbopump Turbopump
Throttle capability[25] Yes: 760–530 kN (170,000–119,000 lbf)[dated info]
(sea level)
Yes: 930–360 kN (210,000–81,000 lbf)
Restart capability Yes Yes, dual redundant TEA-TEB
pyrophoric igniters
Tank pressurization Heated helium Heated helium
Ascent attitude control
pitch, yaw
Gimbaled engines Gimbaled engines and
nitrogen gas thrusters
Ascent attitude control
Gimbaled engines Nitrogen gas thrusters
Coast attitude control Nitrogen gas thrusters and grid fins (recovery only) Nitrogen gas thrusters
Shutdown process Commanded Commanded
Stage separation system Pneumatically-actuated separation mechanism N/A

The Full Thrust Falcon 9 uses an interstage that is longer and stronger than the Falcon 9 v1.1 interstage. It is a "composite structure consisting of an aluminum honeycomb core surrounded by a carbon fiber face sheet plies."[25]

The Full Thrust Falcon 9 upgraded vehicle "includes first-stage recovery systems, to allow SpaceX to return the first stage to the launch site after completion of primary mission requirements. These systems include four deployable landing legs, which are locked against the first-stage tank during ascent. Excess propellant reserved for Falcon 9 first-stage recovery operations will be diverted for use on the primary mission objective, if required, ensuring sufficient performance margins for successful missions."[25]

Launch and landing sites

Launch sites

SpaceX is using both Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base for launching Falcon 9 Full Thrust rockets, like its predecessor Falcon 9 v1.1.

SpaceX has "activated" an additional launch site in Florida for crewed Falcon 9 missions and all Florida Falcon Heavy missions at Launch Complex 39 leased from NASA at Kennedy Space Center.[31] Architectural and engineering design work on the pad modifications began in 2013, the contract to lease the pad from NASA was signed in April 2014, with construction commencing later in 2014,[32] including the building of a large Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) in order to house both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles with associated hardware and payloads during processing.[33] While "activated" indicate it is ready for launches of the Falcon Heavy rocket and also the Falcon 9, it has not yet been used by SpaceX and the first launch from that location is expected in 2016. Crew Access Arm and White Room work needs to be completed, before crewed launches.

An additional private launch site, intended solely for commercial launches, is currently under construction at Boca Chica Village near Brownsville, Texas[34] following a multi-state evaluation process in 2012–mid-2014 looking at Florida, Georgia, and Puerto Rico.[35][36]

Landing sites

Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX has completed construction of a landing zone at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, known as LZ-1. The zone, consisting of a pad 282 feet (86 m) in diameter, was first used on 16 December 2015 with a successful landing of Falcon 9 Full Thrust.[37] The landing on LZ-1 was the first overall successful Falcon 9 and the third landing attempt on a hard surface.

SpaceX also has begun construction of a landing site at the former launch complex SLC-4W at Vandenberg Air Force Base. As of 2014, the launch site was demolished for reconstruction as a landing site.[38]

Drone ships

Starting in 2014, SpaceX commissioned the construction of autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS) from deck barges, outfitted with station-keeping engines and a large landing platform. The ships, which are stationed hundreds of kilometers downrange, allow for first stage recovery on high-velocity missions which cannot return to the launch site.[39][40]

SpaceX has two operational drone ships, Just Read the Instructions in the Pacific Ocean for launches from Vandenberg and Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic for launches from Cape Canaveral. As of May 2016, seven Falcon 9 flights have attempted to land on a drone ship; three of them succeeded.

Launch history

As of May 2016 the Falcon 9 Full Thrust version has flown 5 missions, all successful. Four of them ended with landing and recovery of the first stage.


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