February 6, 2018, 20:45 UTC: The first Falcon Heavy launcher by the company SpaceX lifts off from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It is a truly historic moment in space flight. Heavy lift capability to space is finally back. That capability was lost on July 8, 2011 – with the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.
Now the heavy lift capability is hopefully back for more as it comes at a much lower price than in the past. The SpaceX company founded by visionary Elon Musk is about to revolutionize spaceflight. Driven by the idea to send people to Mars making humankind a multiplanetary species he founded SpaceX in 2002 after realizing that sending payloads to space with the launcher systems available at that time was way too expensive.
His approach to achieve this visionary goal was to build as many launcher components as possible within the company to keep the control and to be more or less independent from subcontractors.
Another key point of the strategy of SpaceX is to keep the mainly young workforce of SpaceX highly motivated. Working for a higher vision like to make humankind a multiplanetary species is helping for sure. Thus, together with a few specialists hired from “old space” companies the young workforce is not afraid to work many overtime hours supported by free drinks and food available. Many start-up companies work with similar methods including releasing “low performers” from their jobs from time to time.
To keep the momentum of the vision of the company it is not enough to show great powerpoint presentations. Therefore SpaceX is always working on the next big step already before finishing the actual projects. A the moment some key technologies for the “Big F… Rocket” BFR and the “Big F… Spaceship” BFS are prepared. BFR and BFS will enable the transportation of huge payloads or up to 100 people to the surface of Mars and are therefore are truly inspirational projects. As an example, a huge carbon fiber tank for the BFS was already build and tested.
For making this vision of colonizing Mars with the help of the BFR-BFS transport system come true huge investments are necessary as several new technologies need to be developed and building oversized hardware is not coming for free, too. One way to finance this is to make money with their current launch systems Falcon 9 and now Falcon Heavy.
The development of currently operational systems like the Falcon 9 launcher and the Dragon capsule were initially mainly financed by the COTS and CRS programs of NASA. Now revenue from operating these systems adds up to development costs for upgraded versions. And there were very many upgrades applied especially to the Falcon 9 launcher. At the moment the versions 3 und 4 of the Falcon 9 are used for launching payloads into space. Thus, the boosters of the first Falcon Heavy launcher were reflown version 3 Falcon 9 first stages equipped with a nose cone. The core stage of that launcher was a special version of a Falcon 9 version 4 stage. The entire thrust structure from the octaweb structure (that structure holds the nine Merlin-1D engines) to the tanks and the interstage is reinforced in comparison to a normal Falcon 9 first stage as the load of the two side boosters needs to be carried through that structure. Additionally, the structures holding the two side boosters were added. Therefore the mass of a core stage of a Falcon Heavy is higher than the one of a normal Falcon 9 first stage.
This necessary redesign of the core stage for the Falcon Heavy was probably one of the main reasons why the development of the Falcon Heavy costed about 500 million US-Dollars and launched about 5 years too late in comparison to first announcements in 2011.
Another reason is obviously that the development of the first stage of the Falcon 9 launcher to allow safe landings and reduce the amount of refurbishment work for allowing quick turnarounds for relaunches took much longer than initially anticipated. Almost nobody remembers nowadays that the first version of the Falcon 9 first stage tested to land with help of a parachute in the soup (a.k.a. as salt water ;-)). Only after this strategy had failed several times the new approach to land the first stage propulsively at drone ships or on land was developed. The tanks of the stage were stretched, the thrust of the Merlin engines was increased (a few times), grid fins were introduced, subcooling of propellant as well. You can clearly say that the Falcon 9 was and still is an experimental launcher. And sometimes experiments go wrong as during the CRS-7 launch failure and the AMOS-6 tanking failure. That is normal for an experimental program that “conquers undiscovered country”.
And the experimental phase of the Falcon 9 program is not over yet. The Falcon 9 block 5 version is expected to fly in the first half of 2018 for the very first time. Upgrades made should mainly support better reusability and quick turnaround times. It will be interesting to watch how fast it will take for a landed Falcon 9 first stage to launch again. The goal stated by SpaceX representatives is to allow 10 turnarounds without refurbishment. That is a very ambitious goal. The fastest turnaround so far time was about 5 months: For the launch of BulgariaSat 1 in June 2017 a F9 first stage was used again that had been launched first in January of the same year. Therefore we will get a first impression about the success of the block 5 upgrades in the second half of 2018 when a blog 5 first stage will be reflown for a first time.
You can also see the skepticism of NASA about this upgrade as you fly approach of SpaceX by the fact that they insist in 7 successful flights of the Falcon 9 block 5 first stage for the certification for manned spaceflight. Thus block 5 of the F9 first stage will not only show how far reusability can work but carries also the burden to be man-rated. Therefore I am really looking forward to the first launches of Falcon 9 block 5 are there is much hope connected with the applied improvements.
My impressions about the strategy of SpaceX is supported by the fact that SpaceX has started to throw away older Falcon 9 block 3 stages after one reflight even with payloads lightweight enough that would have allowed recovery. Refurbishment of these stages seems to cost too much.
Back to Falcon Heavy: What would be the implications of my impressions/thoughts about Falcon 9 block 5 for Falcon Heavy? It is known that all future Falcon Heavy launchers are planned to use block 5 stages only for side boosters and core stage. Side boosters can be recovered quite well as demonstrated impressively during the Falcon Heavy maiden launch. It was a really great show that you would expect to see in a cool science fiction show only. Now it is reality!
Recovery of the core stage seems to be more complicated. You just need to look at the maximum velocity and altitude of the core stage during the maiden launch. The top speed was about 9540 km/h at an altitude of 88 km as shown during the launch webcast. That is quite more than seen for Falcon 9 launches. The F9 first stage for launching GovSat-1 had a maximum velocity of about 8340 km/h at an altutide of 67 km “only”. The reason given for the failure of the Falcon Heavy core stage landing seemed to be banal: not enough ignition fluid called TEA-TEB was loaded into the core stage sufficient enough for igniting 2 outer engines for a 3-engine landing burn. I have some doubts that this was the only issue seen. SpaceX should know very well from several previous missions with 3-engine burns how much igniter fluid is really needed. Nevertheless, you can clearly state that a successful landing of a Falcon Heavy core stage still needs to be demonstrated by SpaceX during the next Falcon Heavy launch later this year.
Being able to recover the FH core stage is important as these core stages are very special strengthened versions of F9 stages and therefore cannot simply be interchanged with these normal ones. Therefore the next Falcon Heavy launch with all block 5 core stages will be another very important test flight – with a real payload on board. The payload will be most likely “ArabSat 6A” (please see Update #1) with a launch mass of about 6 metric tonnes (t) with a GTO target orbit. That is just above the 5.5 t capability given by SpaceX for a Falcon 9 launch with first stage recovery. Note, that ArabSat 6A could be launched with an expendable Falcon 9. For instance, “Intelsat 35e”, a satellite with a launch mass of about 6 t was launch to GTO already by an expendable Falcon 9. And Falcon 9 block 5 expendable is expected to be able to lift satellites of above 8 t to such a GTO orbit. The heaviest payload for GTO so far had a launch mass of 7 t. Can we conclude from this that SpaceX would like to recover Falcon Heavy block 5 first stages as often as possible in the future? And is their strategy to recover and reuse F9 block 5 first stages as often as possible avoiding to expend these?
There are some more indications for that. On their capabilities website SpaceX is listing only prices for launches with first stage recovery. 5.5 t to GTO are available for a price of 62 million US-Dollars. No price is given for expendable mode with 8.3 t to GTO. By the way, the same stategy is used for Falcon Heavy. 8 t to GTO cost 90 million US-Dollars. No price is given for the fully expendable mode with a payload mass limit of really remarkable 26.7 t to GTO.
Well, after the successful maiden launch of Falcon Heavy people were asking for prices for expandable modes. Elon Musk himself answered in Tweet form:
- fully expandable launches FH launches may cost 150 million US Dollar,
- launches with expendable core stage and recovered side boosters may come for 95 million US Dollar,
- prices for FH launches with recovery of all three stages may drop down to the prices to a Falcon 9 launch.
Let’s have a look of the market what payloads are available at the moment. The heaviest commercial communications satellite going the GTO was the TerreStar-1 satellite with 6.9 t launch mass – launched by an Ariane 5 in 2009. Significantly heavier commercial geostationary communications satellites are not foreseen for the near future according to my knowledge. The trend of growing masses for these satellites seems to be stopped as new technologies like lighter batteries and more efficient electric propulsion work against that trend. Therefore I would not expect any commercial payloads heavier than 7 mT and with destination GTO within the next few years.
Falcon Heavy in the full block 5 configuration can lift about 8 t to GTO while recovering both side boosters and the stage core stage. And this is how Falcon Heavy will be used for the two GTO missions booked at the moment. Launching Arabsat-6A later this year and a satellite of the Viasat 3 series in 2020/2021 are the GTO launches planned at the moment. Both satellites will weight 6 t or a bit more. Therefore there is still the option to launch these payloads with expendable Falcon 9 launchers. as said already an expendable F9 is known to be able to lift up to 8.3 t to GTO. There are actually two satellites in the same class of about 6 t that will be launched with expendable F9 launchers: Hispasat 1F and GiSat-1. With this launches SpaceX might use the opportunity to dispose outdated block 3 und 4 F9 first stages or may do first stage landing experiments as it looks like for the upcoming launch of Hispasat 1F.
A payload of 8 t to GTO for a huge launcher like Falcon Heavy does not seem to be that much for a launcher of this size and mass. It is 70 m tall and has a mass of 1421 t at launch. For comparison: An Ariane 5 ECA has a liftoff mass of 777 t and the capability to send 11.1 t to GTO. Therefore most of the times an Ariane 5 is able to lift two satellites to GTO using a double launch system called SYLDA. The launch costs are shared by both satellite owners. And that is one of the main reasons why Ariane 5 still can compete with SpaceX Falcon launchers for GTO payloads.
Could SpaceX apply the double launch strategy to Falcon Heavy, too? Yes, they could do that after some upgrades and a no recovery strategy for the core stage. A double launch system would need to be developed and the payload fairing needs to be extended. Two satellites could be carried that way. That would allow launching in the best case two satellites of the 7 t class as the capability is expected to be well above 20 t if the FH core stage is not recovered. At the moment I have not seen any indications that SpaceX is going that way. No double launch system is developed and a longer fairing neither.
A fairing 2.0 is known to be under development by SpaceX. It will be optimized for recovery/reuse and is rumored to be bit wider and longer (10 cm?) than the current fairing. But I don’t expect it to be significantely longer than the current SpaceX fairing.
Do you remember when Bigelow Aerospace and ULA announced the launch of a B330 module to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with help of a Vulcan launcher? A Vulcan launcher in the announced 562 version will for sure more expensive than a Falcon Heavy. But in the announcement you saw this formulation: “Vulcan 562 configuration rocket, the only commercial launch vehicle in development today with sufficient performance and a large enough payload fairing to carry the habitat. That formulation is one of the reasons why I believe SpaceX has currently no plans to develop a significantly longer fairing. Fairing 2.0 will become the standard for both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Hopefully this fairing can be recovered and reused soon. SpaceX is working on the recovery strategy for the fairing for quite a while now and seems to be close to success. Having a significantely longer fairing would need more research how to recover these new type of fairings for sure. Well, and in FH post flight interviews Elon Musk himself stressed a few times that the development of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will be frozen after the block 5 upgrade that is being prepared at the moment. Cancelling the Falcon Heavy circumlunar Dragon mission, Falcon Heavy crossfeed and some months earlier propulsive landings of Dragon V2 capsules fits well to this approach, too. Priorities of SpaceX are now to finish the block 5 upgrades, the Dragon V2 capsule for Commercial Crew and soon starting the development and constuction of the BFS. The first BFS is expected (by Elon Musk) to be ready for test hops at the end of next year!
Thus, I think the strategy of SpaceX for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will be to recover and reuse as many stages and fairings as possible. Flights with expendable stage (core stages and side boosters) will be the exception. Actually there are no payloads announced at the moment that need to be launched on expendable Falcon Heavy launchers. These payloads may come in the future. They need to be developed first and this will take a few years.
What does this strategy mean for competitiveness of Falcon launchers? Prices and capabilities of these launchers in block 5 version are listed at this website of SpaceX. A Falcon 9 with first stage recovery can deliver a satellite up to 5.5 t to GTO for 62 Million US-Dollars. That are about 11270 Dollars per kg in the best case. A Falcon Heavy delivers up to 8 t to GTO in full reuse mode for 90 million US-Dollars. That yields a price of 11250 Dollars per kg delivered to GTO in the best case. Well, 8 t GTO satellites do not exist at the moment. A common launch mass for heavy GTO satellites is about 6500 kg. Good that Mr. Musk said in recent interviews that prices of Falcon Heavy launches in full reuse mode may drop close to the price of a Falcon 9 launch. Let us assume a price of 70 million Dollars for a FH as there are additional operational costs to cover in comparison to a F9 launch. That yields about 10770 Dollars for 1 kg payload to GTO.
An Ariane 5 ECA has a payload capacity of 11.1 t to GTO. That includes the weight of the payload adaptor and the SYLDA double launch structure. In the best case the real GTO payload is about 10.5 t. Let us assume 10 t for our calculations. A price for an Ariane 5 launch is not really known. Wikipedia states “150 million Euro” as marketing price. These are about 185 million US-Dollars based on the exchange rate of today. That gives a price of 18500 US-Dollars for a kg lifted to GTO. That is significantly more than the prices for kg for SpaceX launches. And still Ariane 5 is flying and has commercial GTO launches booked well into 2022. There are 24 GTO payloads in the unofficial launch manifest for Ariane 5. A very similar unofficial launch manifest for Falcon 9/ Heavy lists 18 GTO payloads until 2021, including two for Falcon Heavy. Thus, Ariane 5 is still performing quite well. This has several reasons. One is that Ariane 5 is a very reliable vehicle with a great record of 82 consecutive fully successful launches (despite the partial success for the recent VA241 launch). Low launch insurance rates partly compensate for the higher launch prices. And launch delays are very rare for Ariane 5.
On the long term Ariane 5 will not stay competitive with the Falcon launchers. Therefore the Ariane 6 program was started some years ago. And the Ariane 6 launcher will be introduced fast. Current plans call for the maiden launch of Ariane 62 in July 2020 with a still unknown payload. An announcement about what satellite will fly on that maiden launch is expected before summer of this year. In 2021 already 5 launches are planned (2 launches will carry OHB built Galileo navigation satellites) and remarkale 8 launches in 2022. The transition from Ariane 5 to Ariane 6 will be finished in 2023 according to current plans.
What will make the difference between Ariane 6 and Ariane 5? Based on the limited launcher technology available in Europe and ready for production the following strategy for Ariane 6 is applied:
- develop a medium size Ariane 6 version (Ariane 62) to replace the Europeanized Soyuz launcher for mainly institutional launches
- develop a heavy launcher with Ariane 64 to replace Ariane 5
- use the upgraded first stage of the small Vega launcher as booster for Ariane 6
- aim for a higher annual launch rate up to 11-12 launches allowing for series production of important launcher components
- introduce new technologies like additive manufacturing to reduce production costs
- introduce horizontal assembly and pre-launch processing to reduce costs
The aim of this strategy is to reduce the costs per Ariane 6 launch by 40-50 percent in comparison to Ariane 5. A 40 percent price reduction yields about 11100 US-Dollars for one kg payload to GTO for an Ariane 64. As Ariane 64 is supposed to be able to lift up to 12 t to GTO the price per kg may even be a bit lower. But 11100 dollars per kg is in the same range as the 10770 – 11270 dollars per kg calculated for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy above. Thus, Ariane 6 seems to be competitive with the Falcon launchers from today’s perspective.
That assumes that the planned reduction of costs can really be reached. Key for this is to achieve really 11-12 launches per year. Therefore additional launches need to be attracted. A number of 5 institutional launches per year mainly with Ariane 62 is targeted. That could be launches of Galileo navigation satellites for the European Commision, launches of weather satellites for EUMETSAT, communication satellites of the national governments and obviously ESA satellites.
Additionally, commercial payloads for about 6 launches per year will be needed. That might not be all GTO missions obviously. Ariane 6 will be much more versatile than Ariane 5. First, there will be two versions with the midsized Ariane 62 and the large Ariane 64 allowing to react better to changes in the availability of satellites for launch. Additionally, the SYLDA double launch structure will be available in a stretched version and the long payload fairing will be extended in comparison to the long Ariane 5 fairing. Aim is to allow launching two GTO payloads of the same size. This will give higher flexibility for matching two payloads for a joint double launch in comparison to Ariane 5. Remember that with Ariane 5 one satellite always needs to be a small one to fit inside the SYLDA structure.
Another major improvement with Ariane 6 will come with the new Vinci upper stage engine. It can be reignited 3-5 times allowing to fly payloads to different orbits with a single launch. That is very important for launching several satellites of the planned LEO constallations and mega constellations with hundreds or even thousands satellites in different orbits and different orbital planes.
Another improvement for Ariane 6 will be that the process of ordering a launch will be simplified. At the moment you have to order about two years in advance to the planned launch date. That duration will be minimized to one year. And as I have learned during a visit of ArianeGroup Les Mureaux a superfast preorder process of only 3 months duration might be introduced as well. Therefore I am optimistic that Ariane 6 can achieve the launch rate necessary to keep the prices as low as foreseen. If that will be the case Ariane 6 will be a successful launcher program for several years.
Nevertheless, the next generation of space launchers is already under development. The “Big F… Rocket” of SpaceX, the “New Glenn” launcher of Blue Origin and other newly developed launchers all over the world will lead to even lower launch prices in the future. Therefore ESA, ArianeGroup and other European aerospace companies have started the preparations for the next generation of European launchers. New technology is under development to allow recovery and reuse of the first stage of the European launcher of the next generation. There is the new engine called Prometheus. It is a low cost engine optimized for reuse. New technologies like 3D printing are used for the production. The propellants will be liquid oxygen and methane. Liquid methane has several advantages in comparison to liquid hydrogen. It is a fuel easy to handle and is widely available. It allows a higher burning efficiency than Kerosin fuel. And it allows that engines can be deeply throttled. The latter is important to allow propulsive landings of the launcher stages. Methane is the best propellant chosen for future application in space launchers. A good indication for that is that the next generation launchers of SpaceX (BFS), Blue Origin (New Glenn) and most likely ULA (Vulcan) will all use engines propelled by liquid methane.
The European liquid methane engine Prometheus is optimized for low costs, too. The target price is set to 1 million Euro, ten times less than for a Vulcain 2 engine used for Ariane 5. After the development is finished it could be used as first stage engine for a small launcher, 7-9 engines could propel the first stage of the future Ariane 7 or it mightneven be used for an improved Ariane 6 version.
Another important field where Europe needs to gain experience is to fly a used first stage back to a landing zone. For this purpose a landing demonstrator called Callisto is under development in collaboration of the French and German space agencies, CNES and DLR. First test flights are planned for 2020. The first full scale tests of the Prometheus engine are planned for 2020, too. Test programs will need to run for several years. In 2025 this could lead to start the development of the next European Ariane launcher.
Let’s summarize: Ariane 6 will most likely be competitive with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy for commercial missions if the industry can achieve the planned reduction of costs by 40-50 percent in comparison the Ariane 5. Ariane 6 is a technological conservative approach based on the technology available in Europe from the Ariane 5 and Vega launcher programs. Europe has started to develop innovative technologies necessary for partly reusable launcher systems of the next generation. Until the next gen launcher system is operational Ariane 6 will give Europe assured and independent access to space.
“Europe’s rocket has no chance” Elon Musk said once. Seems to be that I do not agree with that opinion. And by the way, he said this in 2012 and it was about Ariane 5. And Ariane 5 is still flying today (four Falcon 9 block versions later) and will fly for a few more years into the future. And Elon Musk recommended this: start to develop Ariane 6!
Dr. Rocket (a.k.a. SpaceHolgar)
P.S.: The new metric to show how powerful your launcher is seems to demonstrate how many Tesla roadster can be launched on a trajectory reaching to Mars orbit. Most likely Ariane 64 could lift four of these, three for sure. It would depend on how heavy the launch adapter would be. And to be fair, Falcon Heavy could have lifted two or even three Tesla Roadsters to the same destination of the maiden flight if the trajectory would have been optimized for that.
Update #1: According to a press release by Lockheed Martin Arabsat 6A will not be delivered to the launch site before the end of 2018. That means most likely the launch will occur in early 2019 if there are no further delays. Therefore the STP-2 mission for the US Air Force will be the next Falcon Heavy launch in mid 2018. Arabsat 6A will be next in 2019. And then a Viasat 3 satellite is booked for 2020/2021. At least the Arabsat 6A and the Viasat 3 missions could be launched on an expendable Falcon 9.
Falcon Heavy – a launcher without a real mission? I would not think so. SpaceX plans a mega constellation of small communication satellites called Starlink. Some of the satellites will be in 340 km orbits, others in 1200 km orbits. Falcon Heavy could deliver Starlink satellites to different planes of the high 1200 km orbit, Falcon 9 to the low 340 km orbits.