Early Sunday morning, SpaceX is slated to launch its second Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket — the final and most powerful version of the vehicle the company plans to make. After launch, SpaceX will attempt to land the vehicle on one of its autonomous drone ships in the Atlantic. And landings should become fairly routine now, as all of SpaceX’s missions will utilize the Block 5 from now on.
The Falcon 9 Block 5 is optimized for rapid reusability, according to the company. It boasts a number of improvements that make the vehicle easier to land after launch, as well as upgrades that minimize the amount of refurbishment the rocket needs between flights. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk claims that the Block 5s won’t need any major refurbishment for the first 10 flights or so, and could potentially fly up to 100 times before being retired. The company’s ultimate goal is to turn these vehicles around in just 24 hours after landing. The fastest SpaceX has been able to manage so far is two and a half months.
SpaceX launched the first Block 5 in May, using it to send a communications satellite into orbit for Bangladesh. Since then, it has mostly been launching the previous version of the rocket, the Block 4, and chose not to recover those vehicles after takeoff. They had all flown to space and been back once already. The Block 4s are only capable of being reused a couple of times, and SpaceX likely chose to discard them ahead of transitioning to the Block 5 full time.
Though the Block 5 is SpaceX’s final upgrade for the Falcon 9, there are some improvements that the company needs to make. Above all, SpaceX still needs to add some upgraded helium tanks to the vehicle, which are needed to pressurize the rocket during flight. And those must be added before SpaceX can launch people on this rocket for the first time.
That’s because the Block 5 is the vehicle that SpaceX will use to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew program. And NASA is requiring that SpaceX launch the Block 5 in its final “crew configuration” at least seven times before people can ride on board. But the first Block 5 flight didn’t include those upgraded helium tanks, so it technically didn’t count toward this seven-flight requirement. Once those tanks are added, though, the rocket will be in its crew layout. SpaceX says the first flight to include the tanks will be its uncrewed demonstration flight for Commercial Crew, when the company will send up an empty crew capsule to the International Space Station.
In the meantime, SpaceX will continue to launch Block 5s for the foreseeable future without any major upgrades. Tomorrow’s rocket will be taking off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, lofting a communications satellite, Telstar 19 VANTAGE, into a high orbit for Canadian company Telesat. There’s a 60 percent chance that weather will be favorable for launch, according to the 45th Space Wing, which oversees launches from the Florida coast. Takeoff is scheduled for sometime between 1:50AM ET and 5:50AM ET, with SpaceX’s coverage beginning about 15 minutes before takeoff. If you happen to be up around that time, be sure to tune in for another one of SpaceX’s signature launch and landing combos.
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