SpaceX, Elon Musk’s amazingly successful private space company, proved it has the chops for really serious space missions yesterday when it launched a highly upgraded version of its Falcon 9 rocket to put six satellites into orbit.
The Falcon 9 version 1.1 has so many upgrades compared to the original design that CBS News notes Musk himself considered the launch a test flight. The rocket was 224 feet high on the pad and has more powerful engines arranged in a new pattern, longer fuel tanks for the first stage so the rocket can pack more punch, and a better computer system.
Another improvement in the 1.1 rocket was a better heat shield for the first stage, which is likely part of SpaceX’s plans to make the first stage a reusable vehicle. The Grasshopper research rocket, which impressed us all recently with some amazingly agile maneuvers, demonstrates that SpaceX’s first stage will eventually rocket back to Earth to land on the ground. That’s a different trick than the disposable first stages that most other rockets use, and should lower SpaceX’s already low launch costs. The 1.1 launch is a big indicator that SpaceX is going to be a serious contender in the satellite launching game, particularly when it fires its even bigger rocket, the Falcon Heavy.