After several delays due to dangerous weather conditions, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket launched today with just fifteen minutes to spare before its launch window closed.
After its infamous Falcon 9 explosion in 2016, SpaceX had a lot riding on a successful launch of its newest and most powerful spacecraft to date.
But over 2.3 million livestream viewers on YouTube (the second biggest stream ever for the service) witnessed a breathtaking, successful launch. The Falcon Heavy escaped atmosphere, launched its payload and returned at least two of its three boosters to their target destinations, all within ten minutes.
[Update: Elon Musk has confirmed the center core missed the drone ship it was meant to land on, reports Engadget. It's the one blemish on an otherwise wildly successful day. The core booster apparently ran out of propellant, meaning it couldn't slow down enough to pull off a successful landing. It also missed the drone ship itself by about 100 meters. Though no footage has been released, it sounds as though the crash landing was quite spectacular.]
Here's a breakdown of every exciting moment of the launch and what the test run means for the future of the commercial space industry and Mars exploration.
Falcon Heavy launch, as it happened
On Tuesday, February 6 at 12:45pm PT/3:45pm ET/ 8:45pm GMT, or 6:45am AEST on Wednesday, February 7, the Falcon Heavy rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Within a minute, it hit supersonic speeds, while raucous cheering could be heard by the SpaceX team over the livestream.
At the 2 minute 30 second mark, the rocket's two side boosters shut down and successfully separated from the spacecraft, with Earth’s atmosphere already visible in the background. At 3 minute 15 seconds, and with David Bowie’s Life on Mars playing in the background, the main engine was cut off and released from the craft.
At four minutes, the Tesla Roadster payload was successfully launched out of the craft into its elliptical orbit between Earth and Mars. SpaceX’s spaceman is projected to reach Mars in about six months.
Within eight minutes, the two side boosters had successfully landed directly on their target launch pad. The primary center core, meanwhile, failed to land on the drone ship it was intended to touch down on, missing it by about 100 meters and coming in at about 300mph.
Why the Falcon Heavy launch matters
Fans of the book/film The Martian know that you can’t fit everything you need for a visit to Mars on one spacecraft. NASA needs a safe, cost-effective way to transport supplies and tech to the planet well before sending astronauts along.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is the latest in Musk’s rocket lineup looking to fill that niche. It can carry 64 metric tons into orbit, is fully reusable for later launches (if the launch is successful), and only costs $90 million to build.
The cargo for today’s launch was Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, which was equipped with cameras and a test dummy. The Tesla’s successful cruise towards its destination proves that the Falcon Heavy will be able to carry sensitive technology (and even people) outside of orbit for Mars exploration or colonization.
The Heavy isn’t the most powerful rocket ever – that title belongs to the Saturn V, which launched all of the Apollo missions to the moon, and could carry more than double the Falcon’s payload to low-Earth orbit (LEO).
But compared to everyone else building rockets right now, SpaceX is outpacing the competition. NPR reports that the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, the Falcon Heavy’s closest competitor, can only carry half of the Heavy’s payload, and for three times the cost. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' New Glenn rocket stands almost thirty meters taller than the Falcon Heavy, but it’s designed specifically for staying in Earth’s orbit and could never reach Mars.
NASA is currently developing the Space Launch System (SLS), designed for the same purpose as Falcon Heavy: transporting astronauts – and, potentially, colonists – to Mars. According to CNN Money, the SLS won’t launch a test flight until next year, but it should be about 40 meters taller than the Heavy, with potentially double the Falcon Heavy’s liftoff thrust and LEO payload.
However, what we don’t know is how much the SLS costs. New York Times sources claim that NASA might simply scrap the SLS and hire SpaceX’s rockets for the Mars mission instead, considering their cost-effectiveness.
Today’s successful launch could serve as a convincing pitch to NASA that it should sit back and let SpaceX facilitate the agency's Mars missions, despite the center core's failure to land on the drone ship.
Meanwhile, competitors like the Alliance will be feeling the pressure to replicate SpaceX’s success as soon as possible. If it turns out the main engine did make it back home, they may already be too late to beat SpaceX’s amazing first impression.
SpaceX’s next steps
Even after an extremely successful launch and two out of three boosters making it back to Earth, this may only be considered a stepping stone in the history of Mars exploration.
In September of last year, Musk announced SpaceX's latest rocket design, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), designed to replace and cannibalize the designs of the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon capsule into one package.
According to SpaceX’s projections, the BFR will be able to carry 50 tonnes to Mars and 150 tonnes to LEO (the Falcon Heavy can carry 16.8 and 63.8 tonnes to the Red Planet, respectively), and it’ll only use one booster instead of three. Plus, there's the claim that its pastiche design will make BFR much cheaper than the Falcon Heavy.
Based on today's launch, we're extremely excited to see SpaceX's next iteration of their Mars mission flagship – as well as what NASA or others might unveil to rival it.
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