WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Not only is the SpaceX Falcon Heavy the world’s most powerful rocket, but it’s also destined to be the one that takes colonists to Mars and help Musk realise his ambitions to ferry people around the world in under thirty minutes or less.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket which assumed launch position early in January, and that will be the vehicle that helps SpaceX take space tourists around the Moon, colonists to Mars from 2024 and take people around the world in under 30 minutes, took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, this afternoon and soared to space, carrying its payload, CEO Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster, into an orbit that stretches far into Earth’s closest asteroid belt. After more than a year of prepping the Falcon Heavy’s first flight is finally over, and despite the center core’s fudged landing in the ocean, the rocket has shown its prowess and is likely ready to begin missions for customers later this year.
Adding to the launch’s success, two of the Falcon Heavy’s rocket cores successfully touched down back on Earth after take off. The two outer boosters broke away mid-flight and returned to the Cape, touching down around 1,000 feet from one another on SpaceX’s concrete landing pads — Landing Zone 1 and Landing Zone 2. The center core then broke away from the vehicle’s upper stage, but didn’t land as intended on one of SpaceX’s autonomous drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean. That means SpaceX has now landed a staggering total of 23 rockets upright.
Watch The Maiden Flight, Start: 22:00
The Falcon Heavy also now holds the title for the world’s most powerful rocket, and its launch marks the first time a vehicle this massive has ever been sent up by a commercial company. It boasts 27 engines, more than any other working rocket has ever used, which together create a combined 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. That means the Falcon Heavy can put around 140,000 pounds of cargo into lower Earth orbit, more than twice as much weight as any other operational rocket, and this powerful vehicle could open up entirely new types of business for SpaceX including launching heavy national security satellites or even sending large modules or people into deep space and Mars, a place that holds a special fascination for Musk.
Today’s launch was a solid performance of what has been one of the most anticipated rockets to launch in the last decade. SpaceX first announced plans to develop the Falcon Heavy back in 2011, with the goal of launching it as early as 2013 or 2014. However, the inaugural mission has suffered numerous delays including two failures of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 which pushed the launch even further out than planned. Musk also noted that engineering the rocket turned out to be unexpectedly difficult.
“It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought,” he said at a press conference in July, “at first it sounds easy – just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can it be? But then all the loads change, the aerodynamics change.”
The SpaceX Live Feed From StarMan
This first mission was simply meant to see if the Falcon Heavy could do what it’s designed to do, that is, put objects into orbit and that’s why its first payload was Musk’s car. Last year, Musk said the first thing to ride on the Falcon Heavy would be the “silliest thing” he could imagine — and his Tesla certainly fit that bill.
The rocket’s upper stage, the top portion of the rocket that is carrying the car, ignited two more times after separating from the Falcon Heavy’s boosters. After the first burn, SpaceX put the upper stage in an experimental six-hour “coast,” where the rocket didn’t fire. The long wait was meant to show the Falcon Heavy’s ability to do a special kind of orbit manoeuvre for the Air Force.
During the coast, the car passed through the infamous Van Allen belts — regions of intense radiation that surround Earth. The high-energy particles in the belts bombarded the car and rocket, which Musk warned could be a problem for the rest of the mission.
“The fuel could freeze, and the oxygen could be vaporised, all of which could inhibit the third burn which is necessary for trans-Mars injection,” Musk said at a press conference on Monday.
Shortly after launch, Musk tweeted that everything was normal with the upper stage, and hours later, he tweeted that the final burn was executed successfully. The goal with the final burn was to place the car on a trajectory around the Sun that would take the car near Mars’ orbit. But Musk tweeted later in the evening that, while the burn was successful, the car is now actually headed far beyond Mars. It will instead reach as far as the asteroid belt before being pulled back toward the Sun.
The Falcon Heavy took off from a historic launchpad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, called LC-39A. It’s the same pad that was used to launch the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, as well as numerous Space Shuttle flights. SpaceX is currently leasing the site from NASA, and will continue to launch Falcon Heavy flights from the pad for the foreseeable future.
And now that the Falcon Heavy has launched, the rocket has a couple more missions to do this year. The rocket is scheduled to launch a large Saudi Arabian communications satellite called Arabsat 6A sometime in the first half of 2018. Then, it’ll send up a test payload for the US Air Force no earlier than June, as a way to certify the rocket for national security missions. After that, the Falcon Heavy is contracted to launch two additional communications satellites for Inmarsat and Viasat, but that’s it for now.
More customers could flock to the powerful rocket soon, and its cheap price tag may make it attractive to NASA, which could use the Falcon Heavy to send robotic missions to other worlds or humans back to the Moon. The future of the rocket has yet to be fully defined, but after today’s flight, the Falcon Heavy may soon have some ambitious work to do.