Read’em and Weep: New Falcon 9 Performance Numbers Are Bad News for ULA, Arianespace

Better Performance, Same Prices Credit: SpaceX

Better Performance, Same Prices
Credit: SpaceX

Over the weekend, SpaceX updated the maximum performance numbers for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters, helpfully including payload to Mars capability, (and Pluto) along with standard LEO and GTO numbers supplied by most launch vehicle providers.

While the Falcon Heavy showed a somewhat surprisingly small increase, from 53,000 kg to 54,400 kg to LEO, the increase in performance for the standard Falcon 9 bordered on astonishing, jumping all the way to 22,800 kg, or just over 50,000 lbs. Performance to Mars for the single core Falcon 9 is very respectable 4,020 kg. The Falcon Heavy payload to Mars is 13,600 kg, or just a bit under 30,000 lbs, which for comparison’s sake is approximately what the Falcon 9 showed to LEO prior to the update.

The new figures reflect the use of a fully expendable versions of each booster, but in the case of Falcon Heavy it is not immediately clear if booster cross-feed to the center core is being included. SpaceX originally promoted the advantages of cross-feed, but has noted in recent comments that there has been no immediate demand for its use, and it might not be introduced to the sixth flight or later.

Pricing, which is now listed for 2018, has remained essentially flat, at $62 million for F9 and $90 million for FH. As one might expect, the new numbers are tied to the overall performance of the Merlin 1-D engines, which as a subsequent tweet from Elon Musk indicated, will be increased to 190,000 lb/f  at sea level, and just over 211,000 lb/f at vacuum later this year.

Although the Mars numbers may garner the most attention, one can be sure that SpaceX competitors, particularly United Launch Alliance and Arianespace, are looking at the Falcon 9 performance to GTO at 8,300 kg, and quietly reaching for the Xanax. With its new figures, the Falcon 9 can place nearly the same amount of payload into GTO as the Atlas V 551 variant, which is listed by ULA at 8,900 kg.

The newfound parity eliminates yet another talking point for ULA, namely that in a Falcon/Delta two launcher scenario which SpaceX suggests is the obvious solution for assured access space, the Falcon 9’s lower performance versus the Atlas V will force DoD planners to shift to the far more expensive triple core Delta Heavy in order to lift some payloads that might have otherwise flown on the Atlas 551. That problem has now been solved even before the first flight of Falcon Heavy renders it totally moot.

The new numbers are also not particularly good news for Arianespace, which is in the midst of an effort to replace the ultra-reliable Ariane V launch vehicle, with a new booster, the Ariane 6 which is specifically designed to compete with SpaceX. While Arianespace has managed to maintain its market share, aided in part by SpaceX’s scheduling challenges, the new Falcon GTO figures mean that Elon Musk’s company is now capable of lofting even the heaviest communications satellites on its lower cost Falcon 9 rather than moving up to the Falcon Heavy.

While Arianespace retains an overall total mass to GTO advantage with the current Ariane V, as well as with the planned heavier lift variant of it next generation rocket, the Ariane 64, both require dual manifesting of one larger, and one smaller satellite to make use of that added capacity. Interestingly, the target price for the 10,500 kg to GTO Ariane 64, at $126 million, is exactly twice that of the 8,300 kg Falcon 9.


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2 Comments on "Read’em and Weep: New Falcon 9 Performance Numbers Are Bad News for ULA, Arianespace"

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  1. Zed_Weasel says:

    The small increase in the maximum Falcon Heavy payload to LEO might be due to structure limits on the center core. Might have higher number with a beefier center core later on.

    Mush have tweeted that cross-feed will not be introduced with the Falcon Heavy yet. The performance figures on the SpaceX site for the Falcon Heavy is for a Delta IV Heavy like ascend profile.

    IMO there is no current or planned payload that requires the additional performance from cross-feed Falcon Heavy. Maybe the NRO might ask for it.

    It is going to get worst for SpaceX’s competitors. There is still the new Raptor based upper stage partially funded by the USAF. Which might be reusable like the the current Falcon core.

  2. Keith Pickering says:

    I agree with Zed’s analysis on all points above. I think it’s unlikely that SpaceX would modify the central core to take extra load, considering that the whole raison d’etre of the company is to lower costs by making everything the same as everything else: all engines the same, all diameters the same, etc. Therefore the cores are going to be all the same too, except for the nosecone. And considering that there isn’t going to be much demand for more lift than FH already has, that’s a way-down-the-road-maybe-never kind of thing.

    Cross-feed is a different thing, because you’re going to increase reusability of the outer cores by crossfeeding. It’s somewhat of an open question regarding how much you’re going to gain there, because I strongly suspect that in a non-crossfeed FH the central core engines will be throttled back, perhaps by a lot, so that the outer cores reach end-of-fuel sooner and thus drop away long before the central core does.

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