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SpaceX launches its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket has pulled off its very first launch. The vehicle took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, this afternoon and soared to space, carrying its payload — CEO Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster — into orbit. The Falcon Heavy’s flight still isn’t quite over yet, but the rocket has shown its prowess and is likely ready to begin missions for customers.

Adding to the launch’s success, two of the Falcon Heavy’s rocket cores successfully touched down back on Earth after takeoff. 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 it’s not yet clear whether it landed as intended on one of SpaceX’s autonomous drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean. That means SpaceX has now landed a total of 23 — and possibly 24 — rockets upright.

The Falcon Heavy now holds the title for the world’s most powerful rocket. 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. Such a powerful vehicle could open up entirely new types of business for SpaceX — namely launching heavy national security satellites or even sending large modules or people into deep space.

Image: SpaceX

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 and two failures of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 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.”

This first mission was simply meant to see if the Falcon Heavy could do what it’s designed to do: put objects into orbit. That’s why its 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.

However, the Falcon Heavy’s flight is still technically ongoing. The rocket’s upper stage — the top portion of the rocket that is carrying the car — will ignite its engine two more times, and that last engine burn won’t happen for a while. After the next burn, SpaceX will test out an experimental six-hour “coast,” during which the upper stage and the car will cruise through space without firing the engine. The long wait is to show the Falcon Heavy’s ability to do a special kind of orbit maneuver for the Air Force.

During the coast, the car will pass through the infamous Van Allen belts — regions of intense radiation that surround Earth. The high-energy particles in the belts will bombard the car and rocket, which could be a problem for the rest of the mission. “The fuel could freeze, and the oxygen could be vaporized, all of which could inhibit the third burn which is necessary for trans-Mars injection,” Musk said at a press conference on Monday. If that final burn doesn’t happen, the car could simply stay in Earth’s orbit and then eventually fall to our planet, where it would burn up in the atmosphere.

The Falcon Heavy’s upper stage will attempt the final burn after the six-hour coast, placing the car in its orbit. The Roadster is going into a special orbit around the Sun that will take the car nearby Mars’ orbit, without the Tesla actually getting too close to contaminate the Red Planet. After, the Roadster will conceivably remain in deep space indefinitely (unless someone decides to go retrieve it someday).

Image: SpaceX

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.


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