SpaceX is on track to fly the first upgraded Falcon 9 in early 2013. The upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle will include a number of new features, chief among them being the nine Merlin 1D first stage engines.
The Merlin 1D will offer up to 155,000lb (689kN) of thrust, an upgrade over the 140,000lb predecessor, the Merlin 1C. The uprated thrust will allow Falcon to carry larger payloads into higher orbits.
"We'll be flying that first upgraded Falcon from the launch site at Vandenberg. We'll have hardware there by December. I don't want to predict a launch date, [but] shortly thereafter," says SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell.
The flight will see the 800lb weather research and communications satellite, launched into a highly elliptical low Earth orbit (LEO) for the Canadian Space Agency.
The increased-performance Merlin 1D engines will permit Falcon to put significant payloads in geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), allowing SpaceX to compete with more established large rockets. The first GTO launch is scheduled in early 2013.
"We have to finish building the (fuel and oxidizer) tanks, qualify them, [and] build the flight tanks. Same with the engine and the fairing."
SpaceX is in the midst of a variety of ambitious engine programmes, including the Merlin 2, a significant modification of the Merlin 1 series, and the Raptor upper stage engine. Details of both projects are tightly held.
In the meantime, SpaceX has reserved a 30 April launch date to fly its Dragon cargo capsule the International Space Station (ISS), which will be the first commercial craft to dock with the ISS. Due to the space station's orbit, the launch window opens only for a short period once every three days.
"We may have to have a couple of attempts, but we're certainly looking forward to getting that next flight off," says Shotwell.