There is a car, in space. Launched by a rocket with reused parts that landed back on Earth by a billionaire who wants to colonize Mars.

Update: It looks like the center booster didn’t make the landing. It couldn’t light all its engines back up and it hit the droneship hard.

In the last hour or so, SpaceX successfully completed the first liftoff of the Falcon Heavy rocket. This is a beefed up version of its successful Falcon-9 rocket, where three boosters are strapped together, firing 27 Merlin engines simultaneously with the capability of launching 54 tonnes of cargo into space.

And Liftoff for Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon Heavy is now the most powerful rocket currently operating on Earth, by a factor of two.

On board the Falcon Heavy was Elon Musk’s choice for a test mass. An appropriate amount of weight that will demonstrate the Falcon Heavy’s ability to carry cargo into space: his car. Specifically, his Midnight Red Tesla Roadster. At the driver’s seat is a dummy named StarMan wearing a prototype of the SpaceX spacesuit that astronauts will wear when the Dragon capsule starts delivering crew to the International Space Station.

The launch was delayed by high winds in the upper atmosphere, but when things settled down, they did the launch.

And the launch itself seemed to go perfectly. The Falcon leaped off the launch pad, blasted off into space with its twin reused rocket boosters firing. After a couple of minutes, the boosters detached and returned to Earth, followed by the central stage.

We watched the twin boosters return to Cape Canaveral and land almost simultaneously. The fate of the central third core is still unknown, the video feed cut off as the rocket was returning to the autonomous drone ship in the Atlantic. This happens from time to time, apparently, as the blast of the rocket’s landing engines can throw the drone’s communications antennae out of alignment.

The payload fairing detached and fell away, revealing the Tesla to the Universe, and the second stage continued on, carrying the car to orbit. As David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” began its endless looping background music, we could see the car floating free above the Earth.

According to Musk, the car’s going to spend the next 5 hours or so enjoying the radiation of the Van Allen Belts before its final burn to carry it out onto a Marslike orbit.

In completing this launch, SpaceX demonstrated several things. The Falcon Heavy is a reality. If you’ve got $90 million burning a hole in your pocket, and you want to send 54 tonnes of cargo into low Earth orbit, they’ll be glad to take your order.

They tested using previously flown Falcon-9 first stages as components in the Falcon Heavy. They tested landing three boosters simultaneously.

They also got a chance to test out their new spacesuit in actual space. And I guess, they’ll know if Tesla Roadsters are ready for the harsh environment of interplanetary space.

Don’t Panic StarMan, Don’t Panic. Credit: SpaceX

I’m not sure how long this’ll last, but you can watch a live view from over the shoulder of StarMan as he sits behind the wheel, with the reassuring “Don’t Panic” sign on the Roadster’s dashboard.

Interesting side note, Musk announced that they wouldn’t be making the Falcon Heavy human rated, they’ll be saving that trick for the BFR which should start launching in the next few years, or decades, or however long things take. In other words, we’ll need to go through this whole process all over again of anticipation, and excitement.

Clearly this story is still unfolding. Will the car make its transfer burn? Did the third booster land? Does anyone want to buy 54 tonnes of cargo launched to orbit for $90 million? Will the BFR ever launch? Will Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin catch up?

Stay tuned.

Fraser Cain

Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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