SpaceX has confirmed it will bring a nine-engine vehicle to Spaceport America in New Mexico to test reusable technology, rather than the Grasshopper reusability test bed currently flying in Texas.
In contrast to Grasshopper, which flies with one Merlin 1D engine and associated tankage, the new vehicle will closely resemble the Falcon 9-R core stage that had its first firing at SpaceX's test stand in McGregor, Texas, with nine engines and eventually a potential second stage.
In contrast to the Texas site, Spaceport America is an FAA-certified spaceport with relatively open airspace. Grasshopper is certified to fly up to 11,500ft at the McGregor site, and would require additional certifications or waivers to fly higher and faster; flights from Spaceport America will not require such certifications.
"New Mexico will have testing ongoing, but we haven't announced when," says the company.
Spaceport America, a $200 million project, was purpose-built for anticipated Virgin Galactic suborbital tourism flights, which are scheduled to begin in 2014. The Spaceport hosts experiments by several other companies, including Armadillo Aerospace and Up Aerospace. It is located in the desert near the town of Truth or Consequences, with few neighbors.
The Falcon 9-R is essentially a rebranding of the existing Falcon 9 v1.1, with a focus on its reusable technologies.
"This new generation is what will eventually return to Earth," SpaceX says.
Renderings of Falcon 9 recently released include retractable legs. The legs are included on Falcon 9 Heavy, essentially three cores bolted together, the first launch of which is expected in 2014.
Though chief executive Elon Musk has displayed a picture of the landing legs on Twitter, SpaceX declined to release a schedule for integrating them onto cores, much less when they might fly, other than to note that Falcon 9 was designed from the start with reusability in mind.
Scheduled launches will from now on be used to incrementally test reusability, starting on the next flight with a core stage reignition before the stage falls into the ocean, eventually leading up to a propulsive landing back at the initial launch pad.
Musk has stated that he founded SpaceX to send humans to Mars, and that a fully reusable rocket system is crucial to lowering costs.
In addition to the Falcon 9-R and Falcon 9 Heavy, the company is working on a new version of the Dragon crew capsule with the capability to land propulsively on a planetary body. Long-term, the company intends to design and build the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), a massive launch system capable of sending large payloads to Mars.