By Irene Klotz
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies plans to test an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday from a site in California as part of its push into the satellite launch market.
Previous versions of the Falcon 9 have flown five times from the company’s launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
If the new rocket’s debut goes well, SpaceX plans to return to Florida for the Falcon 9’s first commercial mission, an SES World Skies communications satellite, later this year.
Perched on top of the 22-story, beefed-up Falcon 9 will be Canada’s Cassiope science satellite. Liftoff is targeted for 9 a.m. PDT (1600 GMT) from a newly refurbished launch site at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“This is essentially a development flight for the rocket,” company founder and chief executive Elon Musk told Reuters.
The Falcon 9 has previously flown three missions for NASA to the International Space Station and two test flights.
In addition to work for NASA, private companies and foreign governments, SpaceX is looking to break the monopoly United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has on flying big U.S. military satellites.
All five Falcon 9 flights have been successful, though during the fourth mission on October 7, 2012, one of the rocket’s engines shut down early. The other motors compensated for the loss of power and the rocket’s payload – a Dragon cargo capsule – reached the space station as planned.
Engines on the new Falcon 9 have 60 percent more power than their predecessors. The rocket, known as Falcon 9 v1.1, also sports bigger propellant tanks, upgraded avionics and software and other improvements to boost performance and simplify operations.
The company has a backlog of more than 50 missions to fly on the new Falcon 9 and planned Falcon Heavy rockets, including 10 more cargo runs to the space station for NASA.
The company advertises Falcon 9 launch services for $56.5 million. Musk said he would like to discount that price by recycling and reusing the Falcon’s first stage. Currently, the spent boosters splash down into the ocean and cannot be reused.
Toward that goal, SpaceX has been working on related program called Grasshopper to fly a booster back to its launch site. Engineers have not yet tested how the system would work over water, but they may get a trial run during Sunday’s Falcon 9 flight.
“Just before we hit the ocean, we’re going to relight the engine and see if we can mitigate the landing velocity to the point where the stage could potentially be recovered, but I give this maybe a 10 percent chance of success,” Musk said.
Cassiope manufacturer, MDA Corp of Canada, originally contracted with SpaceX for a ride on its now-discontinued Falcon 1 rocket. Instead, SpaceX offered the firm a cut-rate price to fly on the new rocket’s demonstration run.
“Cassiope is a very small satellite. It takes up just a tiny fraction of the volume of the fairing. They paid, I think, maybe 20 percent of the normal price of the mission,” Musk said.
SpaceX has already won two U.S. Air Force contracts set aside for new launch service providers, but is eyeing the more lucrative missions currently flying on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Andrew Hay)