SpaceX’s new rocket system, the Falcon Heavy, is continuing preparations for her 2015 debut, with work taking place around the country. Modifications to Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) are now making visible progress, in tandem with the opening hardware fabrication and testing at SpaceX assets – hardware that is being born with SpaceX’s forward-thinking reusable ambitions.
With SpaceX pressing through its busy manifest via the utilization of the Falcon 9 v1.1, the inclusion of the Falcon Heavy is aimed at satisfying customer interest for heavier payloads to a multitude of orbital destinations.
This advancement in SpaceX’s launch capability is a natural evolution, effectively adjoining three Falcon 9 core stages together, resulting in 27 Merlin 1D engines pushing the rocket uphill.
The addition of Falcon Heavy is part of SpaceX’s long-term strategy, one that is based around its in-house design, manufacture and launch foundation, allowing for SpaceX engines and hardware to be born on its own factory floor.
The ability to produce its own rocket hardware removes the “middle man” of purchasing from a contractor – or even a foreign entity – thus reducing costs as production increases, while fine-tuning safety and reliability via parental oversight of the technology.
That hardware production rate had already been increasing via the need to satisfy a bustling order book. With Falcon Heavy joining the family, SpaceX production will effectively have to give birth to triplets for each of her missions.
Fabrication of hardware for the debut mission has already begun, with the latest information (L2 FH Flow Updates) noting the nose cone for one of the vehicle’s side booster is being worked on in the composites room at Hawthorne, while the Octawebs that host the engines are heading into production.
Meanwhile, qualification tankage is on the books for a trip to the SpaceX test site in McGregor, Texas – ahead of structural testing.
Its test schedule is currently unclear after a social media user (on Reddit) noted it “hit” an overpass during transport. However, NASASpaceFlight.com information notes only minor damage was suffered on one of the hold-down lugs.
As with the Falcon 9 v1.1, SpaceX will initially host Falcon Heavy launches in Florida and California.
The debut launch will take place at the historic Pad 39A, a former Apollo and Shuttle pad that is now under the control of SpaceX via a 20 year lease.
Falcon Heavy is yet to gain an official launch target, although it had been noted the aim is for a summer debut.
A date of July 1, 2015 has been seen on KSC schedules for the Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR), although sources note numerous factors will determine if that remains a realistic goal.
Beside the need for successful testing and shipping of the rocket elements to KSC, a large amount of construction work is taking place at the former Shuttle pad.
That work began late last year, focusing on the perimeter area of the pad, related to preparations for the building of the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF).
This building is set to house the Falcon Heavy rocket and associated hardware and payloads during processing.
Pad 39A photos (L2 39A Conversion Updates) show the launch mount is now under construction under the shadow of the Fixed Service Structure (FSS) and Rotating Service Structure (RSS) that will remain in place for the opening missions.
During rollout, the Falcon Heavy will be transported out of the HIF atop the Transporter Erector (TE), which will ride on rails, up the famous 39A ramp to the launch mount.
The work to construct the HIF has involved the laying of foundations over the previous tracks that were used by the Crawler Transporters.
Now, this week, the HIF has begun to rise out of the ground, outlining what will be a large facility at the base of the pad.
Based on the latest photos from Wednesday (L2 39A Conversion Updates), it is estimated the steel columns are around 50 to 55 feet high. The structure will be adjoined to a new payload building behind the HIF, which will be even higher.
The kerosene tanks that will be used by SpaceX are also now on site at 39A.
Animating The Future:
Although there was likely a degree of artistic licence involved, SpaceX recently released a new animation that provided some fascinating visualizations of the launch campaign for Falcon Heavy from 39A.
As had been previously understood, the up ramp to the pad structure will be fully covered with concrete, with two recessed outer rails.
The video also shows the pad structure in its future configuration, with an encased FSS – likely with crew access ambitions – visible, along with at least part of the RSS.
Also, providing the video is a a fully accurate representation, the blast trench to the north is covered with a concrete roof, likely lessen blast effect on the rocket.
The HIF is accurately placed in in the video in the location that is currently being worked on at the pad perimeter.
While the sight of the Falcon Heavy launching into the Florida skies is impressive enough, the events after staging understandably caused the greatest online reaction.
Both side cores are seen staging together, before their Reaction Control System (RCS) firings – as is the case with the core stage of the Falcon 9 v1.1 – rotate the tankage in a space ballet akin to the visuals seen in Shuttle booster staging videos – pointing the aft into the direction of travel and executing a boost back/reentry burn using three of the nine engines.
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This supersonic retro propulsion burn has been successfully conducted on numerous occasions, allowing for the stage to make a controlled return back to Earth, aided by stabilizing fins and the landing legs.
Both cores are seen returning to SpaceX’s proposed – albeit a deal has been signed with the USAF – landing site at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-13, later joined by the center core after it too completes its role, after bidding farewell to the Upper Stage and passenger.
The video shows all three cores on their own landing pads, providing an amazing glimpse into the near future for SpaceX, a company that will first demonstrate a controlled landing and recovery of a stage via the use of its specially modified “barge”, known as the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS).
The next attempt to land a Falcon 9 v1.1 core stage on the ASDS is expected to be the CRS-6 mission in April.
While SpaceX is hoping to launch the maiden Falcon Heavy mission this summer, the first triple core return to land isn’t expected until 2016.
(Images: via L2’s SpaceX Sections, including renderings created by L2 Artist Nathan Koga – Click here for full resolution F9, F9-R, FH and BFR renderings and more – with those not official SpaceX images. Other images are official images from SpaceX)
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