The Significance of Falcon Heavy

SpaceX demonstrates deep space capabilities with world’s most powerful rocket


SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Tuesday afternoon, careening into space with a cherry red convertible in tow. The historic field test now categorizes Falcon Heavy as the most powerful operational rocket in the world and demonstrates SpaceX’s new ability to send heavy payloads to deep space.

A concert of 27 Merlin engines provides the rocket’s first stage with five million pounds of thrust at liftoff (twice that of its closest competitor) and the ability to carry 140,000-pound payloads to lower Earth orbit. The rocket’s first payload, though, wasn’t a space-age machinery module or a cutting-edge satellite: it was Elon Musk’s personal Tesla roadster, an entertaining (and perhaps frivolous) way to demonstrate Falcon Heavy’s capabilities while extending humanity’s imprint on the universe.

After shedding its boosters, the rocket’s upper stage carried the Tesla on an impressive six-hour “coast” without firing the engines as an experimental capability demonstration for the U.S. Air Force. The maneuver was followed by a third and final burn, meant to send the car on its final orbit around Mars. While the burn was successful, it was more powerful than anticipated and instead pushed the upper stage closer to dwarf planet Ceres, near the asteroid belt. There, the Tesla will float through space until it’s destroyed by debris or radiation—or picked up by an extraterrestrial life form.

The reusability of Falcon Heavy’s parts also contribute to the launch’s significance. Three minutes after launch, the rocket’s two outer boosters, which were already recycled from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, detached mid-flight, falling back to Earth and simultaneously touching down on concrete landing zones.

The remaining center core booster was programmed to return to Earth for retrieval by an unmanned drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, only one of the core booster’s three engines fired for the landing burn. The rocket was unable to slow its descent and crashed in the water about 100 meters away, damaging the drone ship. Future missions will focus on retrieval of all three boosters. By recycling these components, SpaceX aims to accelerate rocket turnaround and vastly reduce launch costs. Falcon Heavy carries a price tag of $90 million, a bargain compared to the $422 million currently charged by United Launch Alliance.

Falcon Heavy’s first mission was one of the most anticipated rocket launches of the last decade, and one that suffered years of delays throughout its development. SpaceX first announced plans for the vehicle at a National Press Club conference in 2011, initially targeting a 2013 or 2014 launch. Engineering changes and failures with the partially reusable Falcon 9 boosters forced the company to postpone. Later, launch pad hardware changes caused further delays.

Now that Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage has confirmed its mission readiness, commercial customers can feel confident leasing spots on the vehicle for flights as early as this year. The Verge reports the rocket has already been called on to launch communication satellites in 2018 for companies such as Inmarsat, Viasat, and Arabsat. This summer, SpaceX will outfit Falcon Heavy with a test payload for the U.S. Air Force to authorize the vehicle for national security missions.

Photo Credit: SpaceX

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