SpaceX is to develop the world's largest commercial rocket that, if successful, could transform the market for heavy spacecraft.
The Falcon 9 Heavy, a significant upgrade of its Falcon 9, is designed to launch 53,000kg (117,000lb) into low-Earth orbit. Unveiling the project on 5 April, Elon Musk, SpaceX chief executive and the rocket's chief designer, claims the new spacecraft will carry double the payload of its closest competitor, Boeing's Delta 4 heavy, at half the cost.
If the rocket is able to deliver on cost and performance goals it will mark a significant industry milestone. Sub-$1,000/lb ($2205/kg) launches have been a mythical pursuit since the 1990s, when a plethora of private companies were created to capitalise on new technological and regulatory developments. Despite some notable successes those companies were largely unable to fulfil expectations; the expected boom market crucial to lowering the cost-per-pound figures never quite materialised.
"We're back to that expectation again, that the market for launches will provide sufficient revenues to cover the cost of standing operations," says Dr Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University.
The first Falcon 9 Heavy is scheduled to arrive at Vandenberg AFB test pad in California late next year, with a possible first launch scheduled for early 2013.
While no customers have been announced, Musk suggested that the rocket has generated "strong interest from both the US government and large commercial operators, and that we are at an advanced stage of discussion with both".
McCurdy adds: "The striking thing that I saw in this announcement was the rapidity with which this rocket would be ready. If they're successful it will change the market dramatically, and the government will be out of the spaceship business for low-Earth access."
The only successful rocket with greater lift capacity was the Saturn V, the massive ICBM-based vehicle used to launch the Apollo Moon missions.
The closest currently active competitor is Boeing's Delta 4 Heavy, which boasts a maximum payload of around 22,700kg. Although Delta pricing is closely guarded, it is widely assumed to cost around $170 million per launch, which equates to roughly $7,489/kg.
SpaceX has expanded ambitiously and is planning further growth. The company, founded in 2002, grew staff numbers by 20% in 2010 and plans a similar rise next year. It has also more than doubled the land used for its design and production facilities in California and Texas. Musk says that SpaceX plans to produce 400 of its upgraded Merlin engines annually, which would roughly double the world's total rocket engine output. Each Falcon 9 Heavy would use 27 of the Merlin engines alone, set out as three nine-engine cores.
Musk says he expects a market for 10 of the Falcon 9 Heavy launches annually and plans to develop facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in addition to the Vandenberg pad.
"I think we'd need to launch in the order of four [Falcon 9 Heavies] per year to maintain those cost numbers," he says "but I'm very confident we'll be able to do that."
An inexpensive launcher with a record of reliability has potential not simply to redefine the market but create a new one. Musk says he expects a market for 10 heavy launches annually in addition to 10 of its predecessor, the Falcon 9.
"If it delivers on the performance, if it works, and if it's safe, and if it works for a period of time," adds Dr W Henry Lambright, professor of public administration and political science at Syracuse University. "It probably would be way out in front of any competition. If it can do it that would be great. But that's a real big 'if'."
Musk also mentions that SpaceX is in discussions with NASA for a super-heavy version, capable of launching three times the Falcon 9 Heavy's payload at a price well below $2205/kg.