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SpaceX’s new price chart illustrates performance cost of reusability


PARIS—Launch-service provider SpaceX’s new price chart shows the performance cost incurred when making the Falcon 9 Full Thrust and Falcon Heavy rockets partially reusable.

The corresponding cost and price benefit, which SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has said could give customers around a 30 percent discount over expendable versions, is not yet listed in the price chart. Prices are shown as $62 million for the Falcon 9 Full Thrust and $90 million for the Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX has said it needs to thoroughly examine several Falcon 9 first stages on their return to the drone ships or ground landing pads before settling on a pricing structure. Final prices will also depend on SpaceX’s ability to ramp up its launch rhythm.

For now, the listed prices for the reusable and expendable versions remain the same.

Reserving fuel in the rockets’ first stage and adding landing legs adds weight to the vehicles that cannot be invested the ultimate task of placing payloads into orbit. It is the mass penalty, and not the cost of the fuel, that is key performance metric.

For the Falcon 9 Full Thrust, SpaceX said the same rocket that in its fully expendable version can lift up to 8,300 kilograms of payload to geostationary transfer orbit – the destination of most telecommunications satellites, which constitute the vast majority of the commercial market – is limited to 5,500 kilograms in its reusable version.

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has already demonstrated the Falcon 9 Full Thrust’s ability to lift a 5,271-kilogram telecommunications satellite into transfer orbit, with the successful launch in March of the SES-9 satellite.

The pricing and rocket-performance update reflects SpaceX’s latest estimates of what its vehicles can do. SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in an April 30 Twitter feed that the Falcon 9’s thrust at liftoff, now listed at 1.71 million pounds, will be raised another 11 percent later this year, to 1.9 million pounds of thrust.

He said the increased performance ceilings for both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are not the result of any design changes, “but higher throttle setting. Good performance of recent launches allows us to reduce 3 sigma reserve margin,” he said.

For the Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX has said would debut by the end of the year, the listed thrust at liftoff is 5.1 million pounds – “twice any rocket currently flying. It’s a beast…,” Musk said on Twitter.

The Falcon Heavy is listed as capable of placing a 22,200-kilogram payload into geostationary transfer orbit in fully expendable version. That is 2.78 times as much as the reusable Falcon Heavy’s maximum performance to geostationary transfer orbit, listed at up to 8,000 kilograms.

The Falcon Heavy is three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together with an upper stage on the center stick. SpaceX envisions returning all three first stages to landing areas – a scenario that’s likely to provide many hours of risk analysis for U.S. Air Force range-safety authorities.

The expendable Falcon Heavy’s performance is slightly more than double the target performance of Europe’s future Ariane 6 rocket, to debut in 2020. Ariane 6 designers have said their initial, conservative estimates – like SpaceX, they will need to see actual performance before raising the ceiling – are that the higher-power Ariane 64 version will place more than 10,500 kilograms into geostationary orbit.

The Ariane 6 has a price target to customers of 90 million euros — $101.8 million at current exchange rates — for the heavier Ariane 64 variant, which is likely to be the workhorse commercial vehicle.

Musk has long said his principal goal in founding SpaceX was to establish a human presence on Mars. That being the case, it’s perhaps not surprising that the company helpfully lists prices for Mars missions as well, for the same prices of $62 million for Falcon 9 – for a maximum payload of 4,020 kilograms; and $90 million for Falcon Heavy, for up to 13,600 kilograms.

SpaceX and Sky Perfect JSat Corp. said May 1 and May 2 that a Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket would launch the JCSAT-14 telecommunications satellite on May 4 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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SpaceX’s new price chart illustrates performance cost of reusability

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