Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) first- and second-stage Merlin 1C engine, designed for its 1,000,000lb-thrust in vacuum (4,450kN) Falcon 9 rocket, will be flight tested in January powering the first stage of the company's smaller 102,000lb-thrust Falcon 1e, the latest variant of this launcher.

The Merlin 1C-powered Falcon 1e arrives at the company's Kwajalein atoll launch complex at the Ronald Reagan ballistic missile test site in the Pacific Ocean in December for the January launch.

It will also use a higher strength aluminium for its second-stage tank and the new upgraded Kestrel 2 for its upper stage. Falcon 1 previously used the ablatively cooled Merlin 1A and the first Kestrel engine.

SpaceX has five launches manifested for Falcon 1 and six for Falcon 9.

Falcon 9 is being developed for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration programme and its COTS critical design review is taking place from 27 August.

SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk says: "We are on track to deliver our first Falcon 9 to Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral by the end of 2008. The Falcon 9 heavy, which I expect will fly about two years after the standard Falcon 9, will have over 3,000,000lb of thrust."

The standard Falcon 9's first flight is scheduled for late 2008. Its first-stage tank has been pressure tested and inspected with X-ray and dye penetration, the exterior is being painted and insulated and the interior is being prepared for the liquid oxygen it carries.

The rocket's engine bay, which contains the thrust skirt and the structure that connects the engines to the main tank, has been successfully load tested.

The first first-stage hold-down firing test, with one Merlin 1C engine, will take place in the fourth quarter with a nine-engine hold-down test planned for the end of the year. A second bay is being manufactured and a third will follow.

Falcon 9's production lines will operate continuously once started, producing one unit every three months. SpaceX is planning to have its Merlin 1C production line producing one engine every two weeks by year's end.

Source: Flight International