Watch the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket Launch Today
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — After facing early failures and skeptical attitudes, SpaceX has disrupted the business of launching rockets into space by combining cut-rate prices with the routine recovery of used rocket boosters. On Tuesday, the company, founded by Elon Musk, hopes to achieve a new milestone with a successful test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which would be the most powerful rocket in operation in the world today.Posted — Updated
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — After facing early failures and skeptical attitudes, SpaceX has disrupted the business of launching rockets into space by combining cut-rate prices with the routine recovery of used rocket boosters. On Tuesday, the company, founded by Elon Musk, hopes to achieve a new milestone with a successful test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which would be the most powerful rocket in operation in the world today.
Musk’s ultimate goal — sending people to Mars — requires inventing businesses and profits that do not exist today. He also may be angling for the federal government to help pay his way.
Whatever the case, the Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s next step in aiming beyond the existing launch business and demonstrating that it can do more than place communications satellites in orbit and haul cargo for NASA to the International Space Station.
The Falcon Heavy rocket is essentially a turbocharged version of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. It is the same height, and its central booster looks the same. But attached on the sides are two additional Falcon 9 boosters, which triples the thrust at liftoff. That means that the Heavy will be able to lift far heavier payloads, up to 140,000 pounds, to low-Earth orbit.
The rocket is sitting on Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That’s the same starting point of some of NASA’s most famous achievements, including Apollo 11 in 1969, the first mission that took astronauts to the moon, and the first space shuttle launch in 1981.
SpaceX will broadcast the launch on its website, spacex.com, and on YouTube.
The launch is currently scheduled for 3:45 p.m. Eastern time. It was postponed from 1:30 p.m. due to high-altitude winds. SpaceX has until 4 p.m. to attempt a launch
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, or if some technical glitch postpones the launch, SpaceX has a second opportunity Wednesday, also between 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.
“The weather is looking good,” Musk said at a news conference Monday. “The rocket is looking good.”
The Falcon Heavy will be able to lift more payload than any other U.S. rocket since the Saturn 5, the gargantuan rocket that NASA used for the Apollo moon landings. (The space shuttle also had more liftoff thrust, but less payload capacity, because most of the thrust went into lifting the orbiter.) It is also the first time that a commercial company has developed such a large rocket without any government financing.
The Falcon Heavy will allow SpaceX to bid on missions for the Air Force for some spy satellites that are too heavy for the Falcon 9, and it could be useful to NASA for launching large space probes. Some think it could even serve as a replacement for the Space Launch System, a gigantic rocket NASA is currently developing for carrying astronauts on deep space missions, to the moon and eventually Mars.
In terms of SpaceX’s core business, it’s less important than when the company first announced it seven years ago because of improvements the company made to the Falcon 9. That rocket can now carry considerably heavier payloads.
The payload is Musk’s cherry red Roadster from Tesla, his electric car company.
Test rockets typically carry a dummy payload, and Musk said he wanted to do something more fun. There are three cameras on the Roadster. “They should provide some epic views if they work,” Musk said.
That’s a more ambitious payload than what was on the Falcon 9 flight that carried the first Dragon cargo capsule in 2010. For that one, SpaceX put a wheel of cheese aboard.
When Musk first posted on Twitter his intent to send a car on the Heavy launch, he said the destination was “Mars orbit.” The car will not go into orbit around Mars. Rather the second stage of the Heavy is to fire three times to send the car on an elliptical orbit around the sun that extends as far out as Mars, and that car could remain in orbit for hundreds of millions of years. At times, it might pass very close to Mars, and Musk said there was an “extremely tiny” chance that it could crash into Mars.
According to Musk, a lot. “This is a test mission,” he said. “There is so much that can go wrong.”
As long as the rocket gets high enough so that any explosions do not damage the launchpad, Musk said he would regard that as a success. (The propellant on the rocket at launch will have the explosive energy of 4 million pounds of TNT, he said.)
Damage from a launchpad explosion would take nine to 12 months to repair, Musk estimated. When a Falcon 9 exploded on the launchpad at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in September 2016, the pad was out of commission for more than a year
Musk said he is usually “super stressed” the day before a launch, but this time, “I feel quite giddy and happy.” He added that perhaps that was a bad sign.
He put chances of a complete success — the rocket taking off, successfully launching its payload and then landing its three boosters back on Earth — at one-half to two-thirds.
A test firing of the Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines at the launchpad in January showed that SpaceX knows how to ignite all of them — nine in each of the three boosters — at once.
The greatest unknown is the aerodynamical interactions of the three boosters as they accelerate through the sound barrier during ascent, with shock waves bouncing between them. The system to separate the side boosters also has not yet been tested in flight.
Once all of the boosters have dropped off, and the second stage engine starts, the greatest challenges will have passed.
But not all.
The second stage will coast for six hours, part of the orbital maneuvers needed to position it for the journey away from Earth. In the process, it will pass through the Van Allen radiation belts, the energetic charged particles caught in Earth’s magnetic field. SpaceX has not performed such a long coast for a second stage before, and there could be glitches like the freezing of the fuel. The Van Allen belts could also cause electrical glitches.
SpaceX will also try to recover all three boosters. The two side boosters are to set down on land at Cape Canaveral while the central booster will head toward a floating platform in the Atlantic.
“I’d say tune in,” Musk said. “It’s going to be worth your time.”
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