Here’s How SpaceX is Planning to Recover Rocket Fairings: a Boat With a Net Called Mr. Steven

When visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, he did so with the intention of rekindling human space exploration and sending humans to Mars. Intrinsic to this vision was the reduction of costs associated with individual launches, which has so far been focused on the development of reusable first-stage rockets. However, the company recently announced that they are looking to make their rocket’s payload fairings reusable as well.

The payload fairing is basically the disposable shell at the top of the rocket that protects the cargo during launch. Once the rocket reaches orbit, the fairings falls away to release the payload to space and are lost. But if they could be retrieved, it would reduce launch cost by additional millions. Known as “Mr. Steven”, this new retrieval system consists of a platform ship, extended arms, and a net strung between them.

Mr. Steven is not unlike SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS), which are used to retrieve first stage rocket boosters at sea. SpaceX has two operational drone ships, including Just Read the Instructions – which is stationed in the Pacific to retrieve launches from Vandenberg – and Of Course I Still Love You, which is stationed in the Atlantic to retrieve launches from Canaveral.

The first ten IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca., in early 2017. Credit: Iridium

Recently, Teslarati’s Pauline Acalin captured some photographs of Mr. Steven while it was docked on the California coast near Vandenberg Air Force Base, where it preparing to head out to sea in support of the latest Falcon 9 launch. Known as the PAZ Mission, this launch will place a series of Spanish imaging satellites in orbit, as well as test satellites that will be part of SpaceX’s plan to provide broadband internet service.

Originally scheduled for Wednesday, February 21st, the launch was scrubbed due to strong upper level winds. It is currently scheduled to take place at 6:17 a.m. PST (14:17 UTC) on Thursday, February 22nd, from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at the Vandenburg Air Force Base. After the cargo is deployed to orbit, the fairings will fall back slowly to Earth thanks to a set of geotagged parachutes.

These chutes will guide the fairings down to the Pacific Ocean, where Mr. Steven will sail to meet them. The fairings, if all goes as planned, will touch down gently into the net and be recovered for later use. In March of 2017, SpaceX successfully recovered a fairing for the first time, which allowed them to recoup an estimated $6 million dollars from that launch.

At present, SpaceX indicates that the cost of an individual Falcon 9 launch is an estimated $62 million. If the payload fairings can be recovered regularly, that means that the company stands to recoup an additional 10% of every individual Falcon 9 launch.

This news comes on the heels of SpaceX having successfully launched their Falcon Heavy rocket, which carried a Tesla Roadster with “Spaceman” into orbit. The launch was made all the more impressive due to the fact that two of the three rocket boosters used were successfully recovered. The core booster unfortunately crashed while attempted to land on one of the ASDS at sea.

At this rate, SpaceX may even start trying to recover their rocket’s second stages in the not-too-distant future. If indeed all components of a rocket are reusable, the only costs associated with individual launches will be the one-time manufacturing cost of the rocket, the cost of fuel, plus any additional maintenance post-launch.

For fans of space exploration and commercial aerospace, this is certainly exciting news! With every cost-cutting measure, the possibilities for scientific research and crewed missions increase exponentially. Imagine a future where it costs roughly the same to deploy space habitats to orbit as it does to deploy commercial satellites, and sending space-based solar arrays to orbit (and maybe even building a space elevator) is financially feasible!

It might sound a bit fantastic, but when the costs are no longer prohibitive, a lot of things become possible.

Further Reading: Teslatari, TechCrunch

Astronomy Cast Ep. 479: Rockets pt. 1 – What Does “Single Stage To Orbit” Really Mean?

To celebrate the launch of the Falcon Heavy, we figured it was time for an all new series, this time on the rockets that carry us to space. Today we’re going to talk about why single stage to orbit rockets are so difficult to carry out.

We usually record Astronomy Cast every Friday at 3:00 pm EST / 12:00 pm PST / 20:00 PM UTC. You can watch us live on AstronomyCast.com, or the AstronomyCast YouTube page.

Visit the Astronomy Cast Page to subscribe to the audio podcast!

If you would like to support Astronomy Cast, please visit our page at Patreon here – https://www.patreon.com/astronomycast. We greatly appreciate your support!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

Astrophotographer Captures Musk’s Tesla Roadster Moving Through Space

An astrophotographer in California has captured images of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster on its journey around our Sun. In the early morning of February 9th, Rogelio Bernal Andreo captured images of the Roadster as it appeared just above the horizon. To get the images, Andreo made use of an impressive arsenal of technological tools.

Andreo knew that photographing the Roadster would be a challenge, since it was over a million miles away at the time. But he has the experience and equipment to pull it off. The first task was to determine where the Tesla would be in the sky. Luckily, NASA’s JPL creates lists of coordinates for objects in the sky, called ephemerides. Andreo found the ephemeris for Starman and the Roadster, and it showed that the pair would be in the Hydra constellation, and that they would be only about 20 degrees above the horizon. That’s a challenge, because it means photographing through more atmospheric density.

The Tesla Roadster and its pilot “Starman” leaving Earth behind. Image: SpaceX

However, the Roadster and its driver would be bright enough to do it. As Andreo says in his blog, “The ephemeris from the JPL also indicated that the Roadster’s brightness would be at magnitude 17.5, and I knew that’s perfectly achievable.” So he gathered his gear, hopped in his vehicle, and went for it.

Andreo’s destination was the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, a controlled-access area for which he has a night-time use permit. This area is kind of close to the San Francisco Bay Area, so the sky is a little bright for astrophotography, but since the Roadster has a magnitude of 17.5, he thought it was doable. Plus, it’s a short drive from his home.

Once he arrived there, he set up his impressive array of gear: dual telescopes and cameras, along with a tracking telescope and computers running specialized software. Andreo explains it best:

“Let me give you a brief description of my gear – also the one I use for most of my deep-sky images. I have a dual telescope system: two identical telescopes and cameras in parallel, shooting simultaneously at the very same area of the sky – same FOV, save a few pixels. The telescopes are Takahashi FSQ106EDX. Their aperture is 106mm (about 4″) and they give you a native 530mm focal length at f/5. The cameras are SBIG STL11k monochrome CCD cameras, one of the most legendary full-frame CCD cameras for astronomy (not the best one today, mind you, but still pretty decent). All this gear sits on a Takahashi EM-400 mount, the beast that will move it at hair-thin precision during the long exposures. I brought the temperature of the CCD sensors to -20C degrees (-4F) using the CCD’s internal cooling system.”

CCD’s with internal cooling systems. Very impressive!

The Takahashi FSQ106. Two of these beasts are at the heart of Andreo’s astrophotography system. Image: Takahashi Telescopes

Andreo uses a specialized focusing system to get his images. He uses focusers from Robofocus and precision focusing software called FocusMax. He also uses a third, smaller telescope called an autoguider. It focuses on a single star in the Field of View and follows it religiously. When that star moves, the whole rig moves. As Andreo says on his blog, “Autoguiding provides a much better mount movement than tracking, which is leaving up to the mount to blindly “follow” the sky. By actually “following” a star, we can make sure there’ll be no trails whether our exposures are 2 or 30 minutes long.”

Once he was all set up, there was time pressure. The Roadster would only be above the horizon for a short time and the Moon was coming up and threatening to wash out the sky. Andreo got going, but his first shots showed nothing.

Where the Roadster should be, Andreo’s photos showed nothing. But he wasn’t deterred. Image: Rogelio Bernal Andreo, (DeepSkyColor.com) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Andreo felt that once he got home and could process the images properly, the Tesla Roadster and its driver would be somewhere in his images. He kept taking pictures until about 5 AM. Cold and tired, he finally packed up his gear and went home.

“…no matter what I did, I could not find the Roadster.” Astrophotographer Rogelio Bernal Andreo

After some sleep, he began working with his images. “After a few hours of sleep, I started playing with the data and no matter what I did, I could not find the Roadster. I kept checking the coordinates, nothing made sense. So I decided to try again. The only difference would be that this time the Moon would rise around 3:30am, so I could try star imaging at 2:30am and get one hour of Moon-free skies, maybe that would help.”

Rogelio Bernal Andreo is a very accomplished astrophotographer. His images have been chosen as NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day over 50 times. This close-up of the Orion Nebula was chosen as APOD on June 4, 2017. The three bright stars are Orion’s belt. Image: Rogelio Bernal Andreo (DeepSkyColors.com) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

So Andreo set out to capture the Roadster again. The next night, at the same location, he set up his gear again. But this time, some clouds rolled in, and Andreo got discouraged. He stayed to wait for the sky to improve, but it didn’t. By about 4 AM he packed up and headed home.

After a nap, he went over his photos, but still couldn’t find the Roadster. It was a puzzle, because he knew the Roadster’s coordinates. Andreo is no rookie, his photos have been published many times in Astronomy Magazine, Sky and Telescope, National Geographic, and other places. His work has also been chosen as NASA’s APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) more than 50 times. So when he can’t find something in his images that should be there, it’s puzzling.

Then he had an A-HA! moment:

“Then it hit me!! When I created the ephemeris from the JPL’s website, I did not enter my coordinates!! I went with the default, whatever that might be! Since the Roadster is still fairly close to us, parallax is significant, meaning, different locations on Earth will see Starman at slightly different coordinates. I quickly recalculate, get the new coordinates, go to my images and thanks to the wide field captured by my telescopes… boom!! There it was!! Impossible to miss!! It had been right there all along, I just never noticed!”

Andreo is clearly a dedicated astrophotographer, and this is a neat victory for him. He deserves a tip of the hat from space fans. Why not check out his website—his gallery is amazing!—and share a comment with him.

Rogelio Bernal Andreo’s website: DeepSkyColors.com
His gallery: http://www.deepskycolors.com/rba_collections.html
Also, check out his Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/deepskycolors/

Andreo explained how he got the Roadster images in this post on his blog: Capturing Starman from 1 Million Miles

What are the Chances Musk’s Space Tesla is Going to Crash Into Venus or Earth?

On February 6th, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket into orbit. This was a momentous occasion for the private aerospace company and represented a major breakthrough for spaceflight. Not only is the Falcon Heavy the most powerful rocket currently in service, it is also the first heavy launch vehicle that relies on reusable boosters (two of which were successfully retrieved after the launch).

Equally interesting was the rocket’s cargo, which consisted of Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat. According to Musk, this vehicle and its “pilot” (Starman), will eventually achieve a Hohmann Transfer Orbit with Mars and remain there for up to a billion years. However, according to a new study, there’s a small chance that the Roadster will collide with Venus or Earth instead in a few eons.

The study which raises this possibility recently appeared online under the title “The random walk of cars and their collision probabilities with planets.” The study was conducted by Hanno Rein, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto; Daniel Tamayo, a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Planetary Sciences (CPS) and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA); and David Vokrouhlick of the Institute of Astronomy at Charles University in Prague.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster being loaded aboard the Falcon Heavy’s payload capsule. Credit: SpaceX

As we indicated in a previous post, Musk’s original flight plan has the potential to place the Roadster into a stable orbit around Mars… after a fashion. According to Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer from Colorado and a space camp alumni, the Roadster will get close enough to Mars to establish an orbit by October of 2018. However, this orbit would not rule out close encounters with Earth over the course of the next few million years.

For the sake of their study, Rein and his colleagues considered how such close encounters might alter the Roadster’s orbit in that time. Using data from NASA’s HORIZONS interface to determine the initial positions of all Solar planets and the Roadster, the team calculated the likelihood of future close encounters between the vehicle and the terrestrial planets, and how likely a resulting collision would be.

As they indicated, the Roadster bears some similarities to Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and ejecta from the Earth-Moon system. In short, NEAs permeate the inner Solar System, regularly crossing the orbits of terrestrial planets and experiencing close encounters with them (resulting in the occasional collision). In addition, ejecta from the Earth and Moon also experience close encounters with the terrestrial planets and collide with them.

However, the Tesla Roadster is unique in two key respects: For one, it originated from Earth rather than being pulled from the Asteroid Belt into the inner Solar System by strong resonances. Second, it had a higher ejection velocity when it left Earth, which tends to result in fewer impacts. “Given the peculiar initial conditions and even stranger object, it therefore remains an interesting question to probe its dynamics and eventual fate,” they claim.

The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image: SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

Another challenge was how the probability of an impact will change drastically over time. While the chance of a collision can be ruled out in the short run (i.e. the next few years), the Roadster’s chaotic orbit is difficult to predict over the course of subsequent close encounters. As such, the team performed a statistical calculation to see how the orbit and velocity of the Roadster would change over time. As they state in their study:

“Given that the Tesla was launched from Earth, the two objects have intersecting orbits and repeatedly undergo close encounters. The bodies reach the same orbital longitude on their synodic timescale of ~2.8 yrs.”

They began by considering how the Roadster’s orbit would evolve over the course of its next 48 orbits, which would encompass the next 1000 years. They then expanded the analysis to consider long-term evolution, which encompassed 240 orbits over the course of the next 3.5 million years. What they found was that on a million-year timescale, the orbit of the Roadster remains in a region dominated by close encounters with Earth.

However, over time, their simulations show that the Roadster will experience changes in eccentricity due to resonant and secular effects. This will result in interactions more frequent interactions between the Roadster and Venus over time, and close encounters with Mars becoming possible. Over long enough timescales, the team even anticipates that interactions with Mercury’s orbit will be possible (though unlikely).

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

In the end, their simulations revealed that over the course of a million years and beyond, the probability of a collision with a terrestrial planet is unlikely, but not impossible. And while the odds are slim, they favor an eventual collision with Earth. Or as they put it:

“Although there were several close encounters with Mars in our simulations, none of them resulted in a physical collision. We find that there is a ~6% chance that the Tesla will collide with Earth and a ~2.5% chance that it will collide with Venus within the next 1 Myr. The collision rate goes down slightly with time. After 3 Myr the probability of a collision with Earth is ~11%. We observed only one collision with the Sun within 3 Myr.”

Given the Musk hoped that his Roadster would remain in orbit of Mars for one billion years, and that aliens might eventually find it, the prospect of it colliding with Earth or Venus is a bit of a letdown. Why bother sending such a unique payload into space if it’s just going to come back? Still, the odds that it will be drifting through space for millions of years remains a distinct possibility.

And if there are any worries that the Roadster will pose a threat to future missions or Earth itself, consider the message Starman was looking at during his ascent into space – Don’t Panic! Assuming humanity is even alive eons from now, the far greater danger will be that such an antique will burn up in our atmosphere. After millions of years, Starman is sure to be a big celebrity!

Further Reading: arXiv

Weekly Space Hangout: Feb 14, 2018: Joe Pappalardo’s “Spaceport Earth”

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
Joe Pappalardo is the author of the new popular science and technology book, Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight (The Overlook Press; Available Now). In it, Pappalardo “tackles the ever-changing, 21st-century space industry and what privately funded projects like Elon Musk’s SpaceX mean for the future of space travel.” (Foreign Policy)

Spaceport Earth takes readers on a tour of these high-stakes sites as Pappalardo examines how private companies are reshaping the way we use, intend to use, and view space travel, not solely for scientific exploration but for increasingly more general travel. Visiting every working spaceport in the United States and rocket launches around the world, Pappalardo presents a travelogue and modern history of spaceflight — where the industry is now and what’s on the horizon for explorers and consumers alike—in Spaceport Earth.

Learn more about Spaceport Earth, including where to buy it, here: http://www.overlookpress.com/categories/spaceport-earth-the-reinvention-of-spaceflight.html

——————————————————-
Chris Prophet, author of SpaceX From the Ground Up, joins us again to discuss with Fraser last week’s Falcon Heavy success.

Announcements:
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Weekly Space Hangout – Feb 7, 2018: Weekly News Roundup

Hosts:
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guest Hosts:
Dr. Pamela Gay (cosmoquest.org / @starstryder )
Dr. Nicole Gugliucci (@noisyastronomer)

While Fraser and Paul are in Iceland, Kimberly and Morgan hold down the fort, and have Pamela and Nicole join to discuss the major news of the week – like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy successful launch!

Announcements:
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Here’s a Prediction About the Orbit Musk’s Tesla is Going to Take Through the Solar System

After multiple delays, SpaceX recently announced that the inaugural flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket would take place this Tuesday, February 6th, 2018. This rocket, which is the heaviest launch vehicle in the SpaceX fleet (and the most powerful operational rocket in the world right now), is not only central to the company’s vision of reusable rockets, but also to Musk’s long-term vision of sending humans to Mars.

As a result, people all over the world have been tuning in to watch the coverage of the event, and eagerly waiting to see the rocket take off before its launch window closes at 04:00 pm (PST) this afternoon. In keeping with Musk’s habit of sending interesting payloads into space, the rocket will be carrying his cherry-red Tesla Roadster, with the goal of depositing it into a stable orbit around Mars.

According to previous statements made by Musk, the plan calls for the Falcon Heavy to launch the Roadster on a Hohmann Transfer trajectory, an orbital maneuver where a satellite or spacecraft is transferred from one circular orbit to another. After being placed in an elliptical orbit between Earth and Mars, the Roadster would be picked up by Mars’ gravity and remain in orbit around it for (according to Musk) up to a billion years!

To add to the peculiarity of the mission payload, Musk has also been clear that he wants the car to be playing “Space Oddity” – the famous song written and performed by the late and great David Bowie – as its launched into space. This classic song recently got a shot in the arm thanks to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who performed a rendition of the song while still serving as the commander of Expedition 35 aboard the International Space Station.

But unlike Hadfield’s more positive rendition of the song (which you can watch above), in which the astronaut (Major Tom) does NOT die, Musk’s Roadster will be belting out this tune in its original form. One can only assume that he’s not a particularly superstitious man, or just has a very quirky sense of humor. Considering that a previous payload consisted of a wheel of cheese, I think we know the answer!

Musk confirmed that the launch would take place at 0:130 pm EST (10:30 am PST) in a tweet he posted yesterday, where he stated:

This was followed by an additional tweet posted at 07:59 am PST, which indicated that the launch was still on. However, Musk announced that there would be a minor delay at 09:02 am PST, which was apparently weather-related:

“About 2.5 hours to T-0 for Falcon Heavy. Watch sim for highlight reel of what we hope happens. Car actually takes 6 months to cover 200M+ miles to Mars”

“Upper atmosphere winds currently 20% above max allowable load. Holding for an hour to allow winds to diminish.

In addition, changes were seen in the countdown clocks run by the US Air Force’s Eastern Range operations. This pushed the launch from its original time of 01:30 pm to 03:19 pm EST (12:19 am PST), and then led to the count being placed on hold.  By 10:52 am PST this morning, the launch clock resumed and Musk indicated that the takeoff would commence at 3:45 pm EST (12:45 PST).

This was followed by the SpaceX ground crew commencing procedures to fuel the rocket at about 11:22 am PST.

Naturally, there has been plenty of speculation about the possible outcome of the mission. Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer from Colorado and a space camp alumni, is one such person. In a video he uploaded to his Youtube channel yesterday (Feb. 5th, 2018), he clarified what the proposed launch entails and offered his thoughts on what will likely happen to the Roadster once its sent into space.

Addressing Musk’s stated goal of a Hohmann Transfer that would put the roadster into Mars’ orbit, he indicated that Musk must have been oversimplifying because there’s no reason to launch a spacecraft on such a trajectory right now. This is due to the fact that this maneuver only makes sense when Earth and Mars are at the closest points in their orbits to each other – aka. when Mars is at opposition.

This is not the case at present, and won’t be again until April-May of this year. At that point, Earth and Mars will be the closest they have been to each other since the year 2000, and will not be in such a perfect opposition again until 2033. As a result, says Fagin, a “true Hohmann Transfer launched from Earth to Mars right now would take the Roadster no closer than 90 million km from Mars – 0.6 times the distance from Earth to the Sun.”

Having said all that, here is what Fagin thinks is actually going to happen:

“Given how light the Roadster is, and given how powerful the Falcon Heavy is, I suspect Falcon heavy is going to impart a little extra delta-v to the Roadster, beyond what would be required for a minimum-energy Hohmann Transfer. This would allow the Roadster to get as close to Mars as SpaceX wanted sometime in October of 2018.”

According to Fagin’s analysis, the Roadster would still not be able to remain in the same orbit of Mars for a billion years, which was Musk’s stated goal. But it would achieve a more stable orbit than a basic Hohmann Transfer would accomplish. In that scenario, the orbit would be perturbed by close encounters with Earth, and the Roadster might eventually come back to Earth.

In other words, the plan may be more complicated than originally stated, but could be largely successful all the same. Come what may, there is no shortage of people who want to see this rocket successfully take off! After all, it’s not only SpaceX’s future that is riding on the outcome of this launch, but perhaps even the future of space exploration itself. Cheaper costs and restored launch capability, that’s what it’s all about!

Barring any further delays, which will push the launch back until tomorrow, the launch will be taking place in T-minus 20 minutes (as of the penning of this article)! In the meantime, be sure to check out SpaceX’s live coverage of the event, which begins today (Tuesday, Feb. 6th) at 12:45 pm (GMT-8):

Further Reading: SpaceX webcast, SpaceX, Twitter (Elon Musk), Orlando Sentinel

Finally! SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Does its Static Fire Test. Actual Flight Should Be “In A Week Or So”

The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image: SpaceX

The long-awaited Static Fire of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket has been declared a success by SpaceX founder Elon Musk. After this successful test, the first launch of the Falcon Heavy is imminent, with Musk saying in a Tweet, “Falcon Heavy hold-down firing this morning was good. Generated quite a thunderhead of steam. Launching in a week or so.”

This is a significant milestone for the Falcon Heavy, considering that SpaceX initially thought the Heavy’s first flight would be in 2013. The first launch for the Falcon Heavy has always seemed to be tantalizingly out of reach. If space enthusiasts could’ve willed the thing into space, it would’ve launched years ago. But that’s not how it goes.

The Falcon Heavy generated an enormous amount of steam when it fired all 27 of its engines. Image: SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy generated an enormous amount of steam when it fired all 27 of its engines. Image: SpaceX

Developing rockets like the Falcon Heavy is not a simple matter. Even Musk himself admitted this when he said in July, “At first it sounds real easy: you just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. But then everything changes. All the loads change; aerodynamics totally change. You’ve tripled the vibration and acoustics.” So it’s not really a surprise that the Falcon Heavy’s development has seen multiple delays.

After first being announced in 2011, the rocket’s first flight was set for 2013. That date came and went, then in 2015 rocket failures postponed the flight. Failures postponed SpaceX again in 2016. New target dates were set for late 2016, then early 2017, then late 2017. But with this successful test, long-suffering space fans can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and their collective sigh will last about as long as the static fire: only a few seconds.

The Falcon Heavy has a total of 27 individual rocket engines, and all 27 of them were fired in this test, though the Heavy never left the launch pad. For those who don’t know, the Falcon Heavy is based on SpaceX’s successful Falcon 9 rocket, a nine-engine machine that made SpaceX the first commercial space company to visit the International Space Station, when the Falcon 9 delivered SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the ISS in 2012. Since then, the Falcon has a track record of delivering cargo to the ISS and launching satellites into orbit.

The Heavy is like a Falcon 9 with two more 9-engine boosters strapped on. It will be the most powerful rocket in operation, by a large margin. (It won’t be the most powerful rocket in history though. That title still belongs to the Saturn V rocket, last launched in 1973.)

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with KoreaSat-5A comsat from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, on 30 Oct 2017. The Falcon 9 has one core of 9 Merlin engines. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The Falcon Heavy will create 5 million pounds of thrust at lift-off, and will be able to carry about 140,000 lbs, which is about three times what the Falcon can carry. The Falcon’s engine core is reusable, and returns itself to Earth after detaching from the second stage. The Falcon Heavy will do the same, with all three cores returning to Earth for reuse. The two outer cores will return to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, and the center core will land on a drone ship in the Atlantic. This is part of the genius behind the SpaceX designs: reusable components keep the cost down.

An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy has 3 engine cores, each one containing 9 Merlin engines. Image: SpaceX
An artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy has 3 engine cores, each one containing 9 Merlin engines. Image: SpaceX

We aren’t exactly sure when the first launch of the Falcon Heavy will be, and its first launch may be a very short flight. It’s possible that it may only get a few feet off the launch pad. At a conference in July, Musk said, “I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

We know a few things about the eventual first launch and flight of the Falcon. There won’t be any scientific or commercial payload on-board. Rather, Musk intends to put his own personal Tesla roadster on-board as payload. If successful, it will be the first car to go on a trip around the Sun. (I call Shotgun!) It’s kind of silly to use a rocket to send a car around the Sun, but it will generate publicity. Not only for SpaceX, but for Tesla too.

If the launch is successful, the Falcon Heavy will be open for business. SpaceX already has some customers lined up for the Falcon Heavy, with a Saudi Arabian communications satellite first in line. After that, its second commercial mission will place several satellites in orbit. The US Air Force will be watching these launches closely, with an eye to using the Falcon Heavy for their own purposes.

But the real strength of the Falcon Heavy is not blasting cars on frivolous trips around the Sun, or placing communications satellites in orbit. Its destination is deep space.

Originally, SpaceX planned to use the Falcon Heavy to send people to Mars in a Dragon capsule. They’ve cancelled that idea, but the Heavy still has the capability to send rovers or other cargo to Mars and beyond. Who knows what uses it will be put to, once it has a track record of success.

We’re all eager to see the successful launch of the Falcon heavy, but while we wait for it, we can enjoy this animation from SpaceX.

In Preparation for its Inaugural Launch, the Falcon Heavy Receives its Special Cargo – Musk’s Tesla Roadster!

After years of preparation, SpaceX is gearing up for the inaugural launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket. As the name would suggest, this rocket is the heaviest launch vehicle in the SpaceX arsenal. With a payload capacity of 54 metric tons (119,000 lbs), it can lift over twice as much weight of the next heaviest launch vehicle (the ULA’s Delta IV Heavy). And in time, SpaceX hopes to use this rocket to send astronauts into orbit, to the Moon, and on to Mars.

Basically, the Falcon Heavy is integral to SpaceX’s mission to usher in an age of affordable space travel and restoring domestic launch capability to the United States. With the inaugural launch scheduled to take place no earlier than January of 2018, the company is currently putting the final touches on the rocket. This includes releasing pictures of the payload which will be sent into space, which is none other than Elon Musk’s own cherry-red Tesla Roadster.

The inaugural launch will take place at SpaceX’s Launch Complex 39A, which is located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This same launch pad was where the historic Apollo 11 mission launched from on July 16th, 1969, sending the first astronauts to the Moon. After it launches, the rocket will send send a payload into a heliocentric solar orbit, which will put it at a distance that is about the same as Mars’ distance from the Sun.

In addition, the company will use this inaugural launch to attempt a landing of all three of the Falcon 9 engine cores, which make up the first stage of the Falcon Heavy. In the past, the company has demonstrated its ability to successfully land the first stages of Falcon 9 rockets on land and at sea. However, this will be the first time that multiple cores are recovered from a single launch.

It will also demonstrate that SpaceX is capable of reusing all stages of a heavy launch, bringing it a step closer to fulfilling its promise to reduce costs by developing fully-reusable rockets. Two of the rocket cores will land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station while the third will land on SpaceX’s drone ship (Of Course I Still Love You) out in the Atlantic Ocean.

NASA is also offering offering viewing opportunities of the launch to the public at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. In the past, Musk has proposed sending some truly odd things into space, including a wheel of cheese. On December 1st of this year, Musk tweeted that for this momentous occasion, the special cargo would be one of his very own electric cars. As he posted on Twitter:

The Tesla Roadster being loaded into the payload fairing. Credit: SpaceX

Last week, SpaceX released photos of the Tesla Roadster being loaded aboard the rocket’s payload fairing. Forthe purposes of launching it into space, the Roadster has been mounted on a special adapter structure, which are typically used when launching satellites into orbit. The photos also showed the Roadster being enclosed inside the rocket’s payload fairing, which will carry the car into space and place it at its heliocentric orbit.

Musk naturally avoided making any predictions about the launch, saying only that the launch was “Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another.” However, when asked about his choice of cargo, Musk was both candid and cheeky in his response, tweeting:

“I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future.”

One can only imagine what they will conclude about humans. Perhaps that they were are both environmentally friendly and pretty flashy! While the exact date of the launch is still yet to be determined, Musk is certainly correct in predicting that it will be an exciting event. Given the sheer significance of this flight, the eyes of the world will be firmly fixed on Launch Complex 39A when it does take place.

Good luck SpaceX! And good luck to you too little Roadster!

Further Reading: Kennedy Space Center, Spaceflight Now, SpaceX