SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket can now launch NASA's most expensive and most priority scientific missions.
NASA & # 39; s Launch Services Program (LSP) has certified the two-stage Falcon 9 as a "Category 3" rocket, according to SpaceX representatives Thursday (November 8).
"LSP Category 3 certification is a major achievement for the Falcon 9 team and represents another significant milestone in our close partnership with NASA," said SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell in a statement. "We are honored to have the ability to provide cost-effective and reliable launch services for the most critical scientific payloads in the country." [See the Evolution of SpaceX’s Rockets in Pictures]
The LSP certification ladder only goes to Category 3, which is reserved for the most reliable launchers. These missiles are expected to have a demonstrated reliability of 90 to 95 percent according to the LSP officers.
For comparison, vehicles of category 2 – the level reached by the Falcon 9 in 2015 – are expected to meet their assignments for 80 to 90 percent of the time.
Only Category 3 missiles can launch the most expensive, most important and complex NASA missions – projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Rover Curiosity and the James Webb Space Telescope. (Hubble launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in April 1990, Curiosity flew on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in November 2011 and Webb will drive in March 2021 with an Ariane 5 rocket from Arianespace.)
The Falcon 9 debuted in June 2010 and has more than 60 launches under its belt. Only one flight has failed to date – a launch in June 2015 that had to send SpaceX's robotic Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station during a NASA supply run.
A Falcon 9 also exploded on the path in September 2016 during a prelaunch test and destroyed the AMOS-6 communications satellite.
The Falcon 9 is partially reusable. SpaceX has successfully landed approximately 30 Falcon 9 first stages during orbital missions, and some of these returned boosters have been refurbished and re-inflated. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that he wants to reuse Falcon 9 second stages and cargo fairings (the nose cones around satellites during the launch), but this has not happened yet.
The Falcon 9 already has some experience with the launch of NASA scientific spacecraft: Falcon 9s launched the Jason-3 Earth satellite of the agency in January 2016 and the Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite in April this year. SpaceX has also used the rocket to launch unsupported Dragon cargo ships to NASA's international space station, and will also use the booster to fly with astronauts on its crew spacecraft.
Mike Wall's book on the search for extraterrestrial life, "Out There," will be published on November 13 by Grand Central Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. follow us @Spacedotcom or Facebook. Originally published on Space.com.