SpaceX has made some amazing accomplishments in the past few years, all of which have been in keeping with Elon Musk’s promise to cut the costs of space exploration. And with all the excitement surrounding the Starship Hopper and its first hop tests, there was one very important accomplishment that seems to have faded into the background a little.
Luckily, SpaceX reminded everyone about it this week, as the company conducted the second successful launch of their Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. But what was especially impressive this time around is the fact that they managed to retrieve all three of the Falcon Heavy’s rocket boosters, as well as the payload fairings.
This mission (Arabsat-6) was of particular significance since it was the first time the Falcon Heavy was being used to launch a commercial payload into orbit. This came just 14 months after the inaugural launch that saw the rocket successfully send a Tesla Roadster (with Spaceman) into orbit, followed by the retrieval of two of its boosters afterward – which pulled off a near-synchronous landing!
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For its first commercial mission, the payload was a communications satellite built by Riyadh-based telecom Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat). The company selected the Falcon Heavy for this launch back in 2015 since its extra lift capability meant that the satellite could be placed in a much higher transfer orbit, which will ensure a longer service life.
After some minor delays, the mission blasted off at 03:35 p.m. PDT (06:35 p.m. EDT) from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – the same site where the Apollo missions all took off from. Musk tweeted about the launch of the Arabsat-6 satellite on Thursday (April 11th) at 04:10 p.m. PDT (07:10 p.m. EDT) on the company’s official twitter page, stating:
“Successful deployment of Arabsat-6A to geosynchronous transfer orbit confirmed—completing Falcon Heavy’s first commercial mission!”
The launch was also significant in that it was the first time that SpaceX has managed to bring back all of three of the rocket’s first stages. The first two side boosters managed to land eight minutes after launch, touching down almost simultaneously (again!) on the company’s concrete landing pads along the Florida coast.
This was followed two minutes later by the core booster landing at sea aboard the company’s droneship, Of Course I Still Love You, which was parked at sea 990 km (615 miles) off the coast of Cape Canaveral. On top of that, Musk tweeted at 6:31 p.m. PDT (09:31 p.m. EDT) that the two payload fairings (aka. the nose cone) had been successfully retrieved at sea.
Musk also indicated that the hardware appeared to be undamaged and will be used again later this year to launch some of SpaceX’s Starlink global broadband satellites. Two Starlink test satellites were launched last year and the company hopes to launch the next set in the coming months using a Falcon 9 rocket.
The ability to retrieve payload fairings is the latest step in SpaceX’s creation of rocket systems that are entirely reusable. Musk first announced plans to make this a routine part of launches back in early 2018 and specified that this would consist of the fairings using deployable chutes to slow down, and then being “caught” at sea by a ship with a giant net – named Mr. Steven.
Unfortunately, all previous attempts had failed and the fairings landed in the ocean. While many SpaceX fairings have been pulled from the water over the years and put back into service, the ultimate goal is to avoid having to refurbish the components to deal with corrosion caused by salt water – which is expensive and time-consuming.
While Mr. Steven was not in a position to catch the fairings from this launch, it was recently given a bigger net and is expected to be on hand in the future to make all parts of the Falcon Heavy recoverable and reusable. This same principle has informed the mission architecture behind the BFR system, which consists of the reusable Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy launch vehicle.
Besides being the Falcon Heavy’s commercial debut, yesterday’s launch was also the first time that the Falcon Heavy flew with the upgraded “Block 5” boosters. These boosters have been part of the Falcon 9 rocket for almost a year and offer better thrust, improved landing legs and other features that make retrieval easier.
The success of the Falcon Heavy is also paramount considering NASA’s recent announcement that this rocket system could be used as a backup for future missions to the Moon, should the SLS not be ready in time. This is in response to VP Mike Pence’s call for NASA to land astronauts on the surface of the Moon by 2024, “by any means necessary”. While the Falcon Heavy is no substitute for the SLS, this tight deadline could force some tough choices.
Regardless, this latest success of the Falcon Heavy is another step along the road to a new age of space exploration, one that is characterized by flexibility and cost-effectiveness.