SpaceX made history when the company successfully launched its long-awaited Falcon Heavy rocket.
|Update from the editors of Sky & Telescope (February 8, 2018): While initial data indicated that the Tesla Roadster would overshoot the orbit of Mars, set on a heliocentric orbit that would take it 2.61 astronomical units (a.u.) from the Sun, new calculations show that it won't go quite so far out, reaching a farthest distance from the Sun of about 1.7 a.u. (Check out Tony Dunn's simulation of the car's orbit.)
If you have a big scope and want to try your hand at observing the Roadster, go to JPL Horizons' website and input the Target name as "Roadster" before clicking "Generate Ephemeris." The next chance we'll have for backyard observations of this object will be 2073. And let us know in the comments if you succeed!
At 3:45 p.m. EST on February 6th, SpaceX successfully launched the company’s long-awaited Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
There was much excitement for the launch of the triple-core rocket, as well as the recovery of its reusable cores. Of all the technical feats of this launch, the most visually inspiring was the synchronized landing of the side boosters, which have already lifted off from the launchpad once. “That’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen, literally, ever,” Musk said to reporters. Further re-use isn’t planned for these boosters, as SpaceX intends to introduce their “Block 5” version of the Falcon 9 rocket soon, with upgrades intended for multiple re-use.
The center core was also meant to be reusable. However, although it almost reached its destination drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, it ultimately hit the ocean about 100 meters from the ship at 300 mph (134 meters per second). Of the core’s three landing engines, only the center one received enough fuel to relight, and it wasn’t enough to slow the core. But this loss doesn’t take away from an otherwise successful launch.
Watch the double booster landing (with sonic booms) here:
StarMan in Space
The payload Musk chose to send into space generated as much talk as the rocket itself. Currently, Musk’s own cherry-red Tesla Roadster is in a heliocentric orbit that extends all the way to the asteroid belt. Behind the wheel is a dummy driver, known as “Starman,” sporting an official SpaceX space suit.
Attaching a multi-million dollar science or commercial payload to a demonstration flight was never an option, as the risk of failure is high for a demo flight. As Musk cautioned several times before the launch, “There’s a real good chance the vehicle won’t make it into orbit.”
It did though, and we got to watch it happen: “The most fun are the three cameras mounted to the Roadster,” Musk said. “I think the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world." (The battery-powered cameras were intended to last 12 hours; the livestream below will end after that.)
Future of the Falcon
Plans for a Falcon Heavy were first unveiled in 2011 with an initial test flight set for 2013. After a succession of delays, SpaceX finally delivered in 2018. Although the wait was lengthy, Musk followed through with his vision and has presented potential customers with the world’s most powerful operational rocket.
The specs for the Falcon Heavy are nothing short of impressive. At liftoff, its combined 27 Merlin 1D engines will thrust over 140,000 pounds of cargo into low-Earth orbit. That’s more than twice the payload capabilities of the Delta IV Heavy. And it comes at one-third of the cost: SpaceX says the ride to space aboard the Falcon Heavy will be an affordable $90 million.
Now that SpaceX has provided the industry with a powerful and affordable new transport, the question is, what will we put on it?
“Falcon Heavy opens up a new class of payload,” Musk told reporters during a post-launch press conference. “It could launch things direct to Pluto and beyond. No stop needed. You don’t even need a gravity assist or anything. You can launch giant satellites, anything you want.”
The 230-foot tall tower is capable of sending 37,000-pound payloads to Mars and 7,700 pound payloads to Pluto. With specs like this, customers such as NASA would be able to more easily afford deep space missions. As it stands today, affordable heavy-lift transport is the main reason NASA hasn’t been able to get back to the Moon.
NASA has its own heavy-lift rocket in development, the Space Launch System (SLS), but the vehicle is years from completion. It would certainly dwarf the Falcon Heavy in payload capability, able to carry a whopping 150,000 to 290,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit.
But what the SLS boasts in power, it falls short of in cost. A single launch will amount to around $1 billion, with a schedule of only one or maybe two launches per year. One of the reasons for the higher figure is that the SLS won’t be reusable; SpaceX’s ability to reuse their boosters drastically cuts the costs involved. SpaceX also thrives with their “constantly testing” approach: the company assesses and immediately implements all collected data, which makes the architecture as a whole more efficient.
Perhaps an efficient way to offset the cost of NASA’s SLS rocket could be their decision to utilize Spacex’s Falcon Heavy to get to the moon at less than a tenth the cost. After all, Falcon Heavy is ready, and SLS is not.
In the meantime, Spaceflight Now's launch schedule has the Falcon Heavy slated to launch Saudi Arabia's Arabsat 6A communications satellite in the first half of 2018, as well as a summer launch for the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program-2 mission, which includes a cluster of military and scientific research satellites.