Poll

Should Spacex build a methalox Falcon 9 family and go "all-methalox"?    

Yes, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.  
No, the benefits are not worth the risks.  
I'm not sure.  
Spacex should only go "all-methalox" if they build a new 2-stage RLV to replace both F9R & FHR.

Author Topic: Should Spacex go all-methalox?  (Read 146371 times)

Offline Hyperion5

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Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« on: 08/31/2014 10:43 pm »
Awhile back, Baldusi created a thread (http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=26995.5) talking about the possibilities of an all-methalox Falcon 9.  He thought such a rocket would deliver 18,188 kg to LEO, 6,598 kg to GTO (Geo-synchronous Transfer Orbit), and some 4,505 kg to TLI (Trans-lunar Injection).  However, he freely admitted that “there's a lot of margin of error, and my numbers were totally pulled out of thin air, you should take this with a grain of salt.”  Alejandro’s speculation launched the first in a series of 3 threads.  With the plans underway for the BFR, such a plan now would make the entire launch lineup “all-methalox”.  It has been an appealing idea to many members on NSF.  However no one has had performance figures any more accurate than Baldusi’s while debating the merits of the idea.  I realized that we were debating such matters in a vacuum devoid of facts.  What was needed were accurate performance estimates from a real LV designer. 

As it happens, I know just such a person.  Dmitry Vorontsov, AKA Dmitry_V_home here at NSF, is a former Launch Vehicle Designer from the last days of the USSR.  Dmitry is best-known for designing a family of rockets which would have been by far the most efficient in history if built: http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=32015.0.  With Dmitry on board, all we needed was a set of performance figures for a methalox engine.  On February 19th, 2014, Spacex VP of Propulsion Development Tom Mueller, speaking in Santa Barbara, California, provided us with the breakthrough (http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2014/03/spacex-advances-drive-mars-rocket-raptor-power/).  He described Spacex’s monstrous new full-flow staged combustion methalox engine, notably mentioning it had an Isp of 321 seconds at sea level and 363 seconds in a vacuum.  Tragically it was soon announced by a Spacex employee on NSF that there would be no smaller version of the Raptor.  Discouraged, it took me some time to realize that with the publication of the engine’s Isp figures on NSF there was nothing stopping us from simulating a hypothetical family. 

The hypothetical family was to be the same exact physical size as its kerolox cousins to make its use with existing Spacex pads more feasible.  The only major changes were the use of AL-2050 (to maximize the performance dividend), dimensions of the propellant tanks, insulation levels, and the 10 engines attached.  Dmitry worked feverishly and came up with the mini-Raptor engine, which would produce 64 tf of thrust at sea level, have a 321/363 Isp split, and have a 100 t/w ratio.  Its vacuum version would produce some 70 tf of thrust, with a vacuum Isp of 380 seconds and a reduced t/w ratio.  Dmitry finessed the design of the engine’s thrust levels by testing the effects of differing thrust levels until he found the most ideal numbers.  With the engines finished, he worked on nailing the rockets themselves.  Elon Musk had previously announced that the Falcon 9 was in fact ~30% more potent than the figures listed on Spacex’s website.  That would mean that the original would be capable of lifting ~17,095 kg to LEO & some 6,305 kg to GTO (actually quite plausible). 

We knew that going “all-methalox” would only be worth it if the new family had to have a very sizable performance edge over the current family.  That meant going all-out in squeezing efficiency from the design, as there’s no point in holding back.  It would not be easy, I thought, to dramatically top those figures, even while using AL-2050 to lighten the stages.  Especially since the methalox version required heavier engines, additional insulation mass, and had to carry less propellant due to lower propellant density.  To be sure we got accurate results, we used the original Falcon 9 family to calibrate our rockets' performances.  When the results came back it’s fair to say our expectations were not met; they were blown away.  The Falcon 9-M not only clobbered its cousin, but it also beat rockets in performance that were more than 60% heavier.  So how good was the new family?  This good:

RocketPayload to LEOPayload to GTOPayload to TLIPayload to Mars
Falcon 9-M24.93 mt9.8 mt7.48 mt5.8 mt
Falcon Heavy-M78.16 mt 33.4 mt26.3 mt21.5 mt

This tremendous level of performance made me wonder: was Alejandro onto something when he was stumping for an all-methalox Falcon 9 family?  The Falcon 9R can only reusably lift 3.5 tonnes to GTO, while the Falcon Heavy-R can reusably lift 7,000 kg to GTO (http://aviationweek.com/blog/falcon-9-performance-mid-size-geo).    Unfortunately that means a very sizable percentage of satellites will require the more awkward-to-reuse FH-R.  Worse still, 13% of all commercial satellites built between now and 2018 will mass over 6,500 kg (http://www.space.com/6839-space-forecast-predicts-satellite-production-boom.html).  If nothing is done then Spacex would have to charge much higher prices to a large market segment to compensate for losing the Falcon Heavy-R’s central core.  With the Falcon 9-MR reusably lifting ~5.45 mt to GTO and its bigger cousin topping 11 mt, both issues are solved. 

I’ve talked to both advocates of going all-methalox and opponents.  Here are ten major points made by each of the opposing sides:

Advantages of going all-methalox

1) Validates most of technology and conops of the BFR at a fraction of the cost.
2) Covers the whole spectrum of commercial payloads with the single core.
3) It's faster, cheaper and less risky that your first full flow engine be a 640kN one instead of a 7,400kN one.
4) The small Raptor might work as a landing engine for the MCT module.
5) Once they have four pads, they can implement CH4 just on LC-40 and not risk anything.
6) F-9MH might open the lunar market in reusable mode.
7) CH4/LOX is relatively easy to do in Zero Boil Off and if it already is autogenous pressurized, it's just an internal combustion engine away from Integrated Vehicle Fluids capabilities.
8 ) It has good Isp for upper stage performance
9) It is widely available
10) It is relatively inexpensive

Disadvantages of going all-methalox

1) Mini raptor probably a lot more expensive than Merlin 1D.
2) They'll lose the track record of F9 (probably in 80 launches or more if this project started today).
3) It would basically cover the market that they already serve with a more expensive launcher (but if reusable the cost might be similar).
4) They already have a lot in their plate to start investing in already existing capabilities.
5) They get no lesson on scaling (size, thrust, etc.)
6) Its low density means that your rocket stages need to be bigger and heavier if the same engine cycle is used, which increases the cost of the stage and makes them more difficult to handle.
7) The fuel system has to be designed to also handle cryogenic temperatures, which increases weight and cost, since more insulation is required as well as for providing boiloff mitigation.
8 ) The cryogenic temperatures of the fuel decreases reliability as there is a greater chance of things sticking, like valves and regulators.
9) More Helium is required to prevent bubbling of the fuel near the inlets to the engine.
10) There is decreased safety as fuel boiloff gases can ignite with the air if not properly controlled.


Detailed figures on both Falcon 9-M & Falcon Heavy-M below:
RocketFalcon 9-MFalcon Heavy-M (cross-feed)
Payload to LEO24.93 mt78.16 mt
Gross Mass446 mt1262.99 mt
Diameter3.66 m3.66 m x 3
SI Gross Mass358.47 mt763.77 mt
SI Propellant Mass 335.06 mt716.94 mt
SI Engines9xMini-Raptor27xMini-Raptor
SI SL Thrust576 tf1728 tf
SI Vac Thrust651.4 tf1954.2 tf
SI Engine Isp321/363321/363
SII Gross Mass60.90 mt358.47 mt
SII Propellant Mass56.80 mt335.06 mt
SII SL  ThrustN/A576 tf
SII Vac Thrust70 tf651.4 tf
SII Engine Isp380321/363
SIII Gross MassN/A60.90 mt
SIII Propellant MassN/A56.80 mt
SIII Vac ThrustN/A70 tf
SIII IspN/A380
PLF Mass1.70 mt1.70 mt
PLF separation time (sec.)220220

So what do you think?  Are the merits of going “all-methalox” worth the risks given the rewards?

There is however an even more ambitious alternative to a methalox Falcon 9-M family.  "What is it?"  A 2-stage "mini-BFR" capable of performing all of the missions an expendable Falcon Heavy could while enjoying greater reusable capacity.  Such a launcher was envisaged by RocketmanUS, who noted that while the infrastructure changes would be even greater, the payoffs in operational simplicity would also be greater.  Instead of struggling to deal with the central core on the FH, it would cut the design back to a super-sized methalox Falcon 9-style design.  Powered by 9 much larger, 142 tf thrust (at sea level) versions of Mini-Raptors, the mini-BFR would need to only mass 1000 tonnes at liftoff to replace the full range of FH capabilities.  How do I know?  Dmitry looked into it for RocketmanUS.  Here's what the 1000-tonner managed going all-out:

RocketPayload to LEOPayload to GTOPayload to TLIPayload to Mars
Eagle 955.90 mt22.35 mt16.77 mt12.98 mt

It should stand not less than 72 meters tall and perhaps as tall as 75 meters tall.  If this is a proposal you're in favor for or against, please vote and join in the ongoing debate. 


-Special thanks to Dmitry_V_home, baldusi, Steven Pietrobon, MeekGee, Lobo, and RocketmanUS for help and advice on the thread.  Attached below is a picture of the methalox versions of the Falcon 9 family. 
« Last Edit: 09/15/2014 09:21 pm by Hyperion5 »

Offline Robotbeat

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #1 on: 08/31/2014 10:56 pm »
Not for a decade.
Chris  Whoever loves correction loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.

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Offline Lar

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #2 on: 08/31/2014 11:00 pm »
Not for a decade.

Right.

Right now SpaceX needs to crank out launches, and bring all the near term stuff online. In a decade, maybe they might reengine Falcon with the mini-Raptor that some speculate they have to do anyway for a lander engine.

But in a decade or two... maybe it will make more sense to take payloads up with the BFR and use in-space tugs to put them where they need to go, if BFR pans out.

Meanwhile reengining is a distraction they can ill-afford.

SpaceX doesn't care about best. It cares about cheapest. Kerolox is working.
"I think it would be great to be born on Earth and to die on Mars. Just hopefully not at the point of impact." -Elon Musk
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Offline northenarc

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #3 on: 08/31/2014 11:05 pm »
 I don't think they will, the kerosene engines are working just fine and the focus is perfecting that system and reusability. Besides, who says the Falcon 1.1 is the final version if that rocket. The ultimate reuseable version is bound to be optimized for its task. I'm sure there has been commentary here on how much room there is engineering wise to stretch tanks (second stage?) or otherwise upgrade payload without an entirely new engine system, though I'm not clear on how far that could go.   

Offline Hyperion5

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #4 on: 08/31/2014 11:15 pm »
Not for a decade.

Right.

Right now SpaceX needs to crank out launches, and bring all the near term stuff online. In a decade, maybe they might reengine Falcon with the mini-Raptor that some speculate they have to do anyway for a lander engine.

But in a decade or two... maybe it will make more sense to take payloads up with the BFR and use in-space tugs to put them where they need to go, if BFR pans out.

Meanwhile reengining is a distraction they can ill-afford.

SpaceX doesn't care about best. It cares about cheapest. Kerolox is working.

It's working, but it's also fair to say it is a much more limited family in terms of reusable capability.  Also, given methane's great reusability characteristics, it should be much easier to "gas and go". 

Offline Lar

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #5 on: 08/31/2014 11:20 pm »
SpaceX doesn't care about best. It cares about cheapest. Kerolox is working.

It's working, but it's also fair to say it is a much more limited family in terms of reusable capability.  Also, given methane's great reusability characteristics, it should be much easier to "gas and go".

Let me repeat. Better is the enemy of good enough. Kerolox is good enough.
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Offline Lars_J

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #6 on: 08/31/2014 11:27 pm »

SpaceX doesn't care about best. It cares about cheapest. Kerolox is working.

It's working, but it's also fair to say it is a much more limited family in terms of reusable capability.  Also, given methane's great reusability characteristics, it should be much easier to "gas and go".

Let me repeat. Better is the enemy of good enough. Kerolox is good enough.

It's not a hard rule, and we are not privy to all the factors involved. It may depend on how well Raptor development proceeds, and how much reusability benefits from methane.

A methane powered F9 would be a radically different beast, though, a much bigger leap than F9 to v1.1.  Further stretching the vehicle to fit the lower density methane may also prove impractical, leading to a wider core, which makes road transport harder, and so on.

I do think that the next SpaceX vehicle after FH will be all Methane powered, even if it isn't full BFR size. But I expect keroLox F9 to fly for the next decade in some form.

Offline Robotbeat

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #7 on: 08/31/2014 11:49 pm »
Raptor now is about where Merlin was a decade ago. I would imagine it will take just as long for it to trickle down to the low end of their launch operations.
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Offline guckyfan

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #8 on: 09/01/2014 12:42 am »
I think it is not necessary at the moment. The Falcon Family will be very competetive. However if others come up with good reusables, the switch may become necessary. It should be a concept that does not need a heavy. So probably not strictly a Falcon M. A single stick should be able to lift almost everything. For the rare payloads that exceed that capabability BFR can be used. Or let the competition lift them.


Added: Great calculations, thanks.
« Last Edit: 09/01/2014 12:42 am by guckyfan »

Offline Lee Jay

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #9 on: 09/01/2014 01:17 am »
Let me repeat. Better is the enemy of good enough. Kerolox is good enough.

Then why does everyone fly with RP1 (better) instead of kerosene (good)?  I presume the answer is that good isn't good enough and they have to go better.

Which brings me to a question about methane.  Is natural gas good enough for methane engines, or does it have to be a much higher purity of methane?

Offline butters

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #10 on: 09/01/2014 01:19 am »
Not until electric propulsion is ubiquitous on satellite buses and SpaceX can use BFRs to launch dozens at a time into a few standard injection orbits. The F9R(H) is good enough for the single primary payload launch model.

Offline QuantumG

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #11 on: 09/01/2014 01:19 am »
Kerosene isn't even "good". RP-1 is good, and will continue to be good flight after flight. Kerosene is: it worked last week, what changed??
Human spaceflight is basically just LARPing now.

Offline Hyperion5

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #12 on: 09/01/2014 01:24 am »
A methane powered F9 would be a radically different beast, though, a much bigger leap than F9 to v1.1.  Further stretching the vehicle to fit the lower density methane may also prove impractical, leading to a wider core, which makes road transport harder, and so on.
....

Woah, slow down there, Lars.  Who said anything about this design featuring a wider core?  The designs you see in the first post's attachment are nearly identical in scale to the current Falcon 9 family.  Dmitry and I made absolutely certain of that fact.  Thus there is no meaningful difference in the road transportation characteristics of this new family.  Second thing I need to make clear is that all the payload numbers listed are for this same near-identical scale methalox Falcon 9 family.  The design is meant to be both a large upgrade in performance and require as minimal of launchpad upgrades as possible. 

Let me repeat. Better is the enemy of good enough. Kerolox is good enough.

Except when "good enough" is no longer good enough, Lar.  In business, studies show there is usually only a ten-year period in which a firm enjoys a competitive advantage.  Spacex right now are in the beginning of that period, and may be able to extend it via achieving reusability.  It won't last forever.  Take for instance the Soviet Union's T-34 tank.  It was revolutionary when introduced in 1940, able to withstand almost any anti-tank round thanks to its sloped armor, and was equipped with a powerful 76 mm gun.  However eventually the competition caught up.  Soon the T-34's armor could be defeated at greater and greater ranges, and its gun proved inadequate against the competition, forcing the Soviets to flank enemy tanks to defeat them.  However the Soviets, like you, did not simply want to abandon such a proven design.  Particularly not when changing the design would disrupt production lines. 

By 1944 they no longer felt this could continue on.  The T-34 tank was given a much larger, twice as heavily armored turret housing a much more powerful 85 mm gun.  It housed an extra crewmember, a dedicated gunner, and gave the freed-up tank commander his own radio.  This substantial upgrade rescued the T-34 tank from obsolescence.  Much like the T-34, the Falcon 9-M has seen a substantial upgrade.  Kerolox, as you say, is probably adequate for now.  There is no guarantee that it will remain adequate, especially given Spacex cannot force much of the competition out of business.

Spacex has already mentioned they have considered upgrading the family's upper stage to methalox eventually.  This might work well as an interim step, allowing Spacex to boost performance and prove the engine before building a much larger methalox SI.  It may not happen, but then again, a 55% boost in GTO performance is something that should catch anyone's attention.  This upgrade would also be probably more than adequate for Spacex to take on fiercer competition for years afterwards.  At the very least it is worth consideration. 
« Last Edit: 09/01/2014 01:27 am by Hyperion5 »

Offline GalacticIntruder

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #13 on: 09/01/2014 01:33 am »
Sometime in the future I could see a single engine Raptor powered, single core rocket, as their bread and butter commercial launcher.

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Offline baldusi

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #14 on: 09/01/2014 01:55 am »

SpaceX doesn't care about best. It cares about cheapest. Kerolox is working.

It's working, but it's also fair to say it is a much more limited family in terms of reusable capability.  Also, given methane's great reusability characteristics, it should be much easier to "gas and go".

Let me repeat. Better is the enemy of good enough. Kerolox is good enough.

It's not a hard rule, and we are not privy to all the factors involved. It may depend on how well Raptor development proceeds, and how much reusability benefits from methane.

A methane powered F9 would be a radically different beast, though, a much bigger leap than F9 to v1.1.  Further stretching the vehicle to fit the lower density methane may also prove impractical, leading to a wider core, which makes road transport harder, and so on.

I do think that the next SpaceX vehicle after FH will be all Methane powered, even if it isn't full BFR size. But I expect keroLox F9 to fly for the next decade in some form.
Did you read the first post? This is done within Falcon 9 v1.1 current dimensions. That's the amazing thing. And SC engines are usually better at throttling (RD-191 does 30%). So they might be able to hover, which is quite an interesting capability for a returnable vehicle.
Incidentally, I've been thinking. If you are starting from scratch, why a 9 to 1 engine relationship and not a 7 to 1? After thinking a bit more, I assumed the statistics for engine out are better at 9:1. But only because at 9:1 you can have all the way (for first stage) engine out with reasonable T/W.

Offline butters

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #15 on: 09/01/2014 01:57 am »
Sometime in the future I could see a single engine Raptor powered, single core rocket, as their bread and butter commercial launcher.

How does a single-engine booster return to launch site? It would have to be clustered mini-Raptors, and that makes the whole idea a lot less compelling.

Offline Hyperion5

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #16 on: 09/01/2014 02:25 am »
Sometime in the future I could see a single engine Raptor powered, single core rocket, as their bread and butter commercial launcher.

How does a single-engine booster return to launch site? It would have to be clustered mini-Raptors, and that makes the whole idea a lot less compelling.

You mean the single Raptor engine makes the idea less compelling?  Just wanted to be sure I understood you on this. 

Offline Robotbeat

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #17 on: 09/01/2014 02:35 am »
Sometime in the future I could see a single engine Raptor powered, single core rocket, as their bread and butter commercial launcher.

How does a single-engine booster return to launch site? It would have to be clustered mini-Raptors, and that makes the whole idea a lot less compelling.

You mean the single Raptor engine makes the idea less compelling?  Just wanted to be sure I understood you on this.
No, the single-engine Raptor makes it nearly impossible. Single-engine F9 first stage makes sense ONLY if you think reusable first stage is a dead-end approach.
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Offline groundbound

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #18 on: 09/01/2014 02:40 am »
One other thing that might make the business case for all of this more (or maybe less) compelling.

There is a high likelihood that the total market opportunity for payloads will not increase substantially for many years. At the same time there is a good likelihood that Falcon's share of that market will see most of its growth over the next 3-7 years, simultaneous to an increase in re-using cores.

So at the end of that period, demand for new cores from the factory may fall quite quickly. Maintain production rate for another year and they could have an inventory to last several years. This is probably several years before any serious production ramp on BFR.

So scale back production of F9 for a few years? Use the interim for a to build some F9Ms? Or just shut down production and start converting the factory to start up on BFR's years later?

Offline DanielW

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Re: Should Spacex go all-methalox?
« Reply #19 on: 09/01/2014 02:41 am »
Interesting numbers. I think spacex is best served in their long game by staying the course and flying the product they have to fund the one they want. It does give an interesting opportunity for a competitor to jump into the game with a superior product. Hopefully spacex will have the flexibility to counter at that time.

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