A few hours ago the Bangabandhu-1 was launched from Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9 rocket with a first stage in its new version, called Block 5, at its debut. After about 33 minutes it separated from the rocket’s last stage and starte the series of maneuvers that will bring it into a geostationary orbit.
The Block 5 version of the first stage, also called a booster, includes a lot of improvements for the Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX didn’t reveal all the details but a lot of information were provided by the company’s executives or leaked anyway. Various advancements concern performance, meeting NASA’s demands for manned launches, but above all with concern re-use possibilities, a crucial factor in Elon Musk’s company plans.
Various official statements concern the design modifications of the Merlin engines, now in their 1D + version, to make them more resistant to stress. The performance gain is estimated around 7-8%, quite good for a rocket that has already been made more powerful over the years. The Block 5 version first stage is also equipped with the new retractable leg system that is used for controlled landing.
Many modifications were made using the experience accumulated during the controlled landing attempts of the last few years. The point is to limit as much as possible the need for the first stage refurbishing between launches. This means that refurbishing costs will be lower and the time needed before another launch will be shorter.
So far the recovered first stages were reused for a second launch and no more. With the Block 5 version SpaceX officially aims to use every first stage for at least 10 launches even if unofficially there are sources who speak of reaching in time 100 launches each.
After the launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite, the first stage landed on the marine drone platform “Of course I still love you”, in position in the Atlantic Ocean. Experiments started recently to recover the fairing – worth about $6 million – that protects the spacecraft in the first phase of the flight, but it wasn’t scheduled for this mission.
The recovered first stage will be carefully inspected to verify that the changes have worked as intended. If all went well it will be a new step forward for SpaceX, which will offer even more launches at 50 million dollars instead of 60. The next year the company will try the reuse within 24 hours.
Block 5 is the last major evolution of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and in the future there will be only minor refinements. In the next years the company will focus on the BFR project, the next giant rocket that according to Elon Musk will be used for the missions to Mars.