Long-Awaited Falcon Heavy Ready For Business

SpaceX made history when the company successfully launched its long-awaited Falcon Heavy rocket.

Update from the editors of Sky & Telescope (February 8, 2018): While initial data indicated that the Tesla Roadster would overshoot the orbit of Mars, set on a heliocentric orbit that would take it 2.61 astronomical units (a.u.) from the Sun, new calculations show that it won't go quite so far out, reaching a farthest distance from the Sun of about 1.7 a.u. (Check out Tony Dunn's simulation of the car's orbit.)

If you have a big scope and want to try your hand at observing the Roadster, go to JPL Horizons' website and input the Target name as "Roadster" before clicking "Generate Ephemeris." The next chance we'll have for backyard observations of this object will be 2073. And let us know in the comments if you succeed!

SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center for it’s maiden voyage.
Pauline Acalin

At 3:45 p.m. EST on February 6th, SpaceX successfully launched the company’s long-awaited Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

There was much excitement for the launch of the triple-core rocket, as well as the recovery of its reusable cores. Of all the technical feats of this launch, the most visually inspiring was the synchronized landing of the side boosters, which have already lifted off from the launchpad once. “That’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen, literally, ever,” Musk said to reporters. Further re-use isn’t planned for these boosters, as SpaceX intends to introduce their “Block 5” version of the Falcon 9 rocket soon, with upgrades intended for multiple re-use.

The center core was also meant to be reusable. However, although it almost reached its destination drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, it ultimately hit the ocean about 100 meters from the ship at 300 mph (134 meters per second). Of the core’s three landing engines, only the center one received enough fuel to relight, and it wasn’t enough to slow the core. But this loss doesn’t take away from an otherwise successful launch.

Watch the double booster landing (with sonic booms) here:

StarMan in Space

The payload Musk chose to send into space generated as much talk as the rocket itself. Currently, Musk’s own cherry-red Tesla Roadster is in a heliocentric orbit that extends all the way to the asteroid belt. Behind the wheel is a dummy driver, known as “Starman,” sporting an official SpaceX space suit.

Tesla in space

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster was temporarily in orbit around Earth, before its third booster fire, which sent it to its final orbit.
SpaceX

Attaching a multi-million dollar science or commercial payload to a demonstration flight was never an option, as the risk of failure is high for a demo flight. As Musk cautioned several times before the launch, “There’s a real good chance the vehicle won’t make it into orbit.”

It did though, and we got to watch it happen: “The most fun are the three cameras mounted to the Roadster,” Musk said. “I think the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world." (The battery-powered cameras were intended to last 12 hours; the livestream below will end after that.)

Future of the Falcon

Plans for a Falcon Heavy were first unveiled in 2011 with an initial test flight set for 2013. After a succession of delays, SpaceX finally delivered in 2018. Although the wait was lengthy, Musk followed through with his vision and has presented potential customers with the world’s most powerful operational rocket.

Tesla's predicted orbit

The final, heliocentric orbit of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster will take it across the orbit of Mars and into the asteroid belt.
SpaceX

The specs for the Falcon Heavy are nothing short of impressive. At liftoff, its combined 27 Merlin 1D engines will thrust over 140,000 pounds of cargo into low-Earth orbit. That’s more than twice the payload capabilities of the Delta IV Heavy. And it comes at one-third of the cost: SpaceX says the ride to space aboard the Falcon Heavy will be an affordable $90 million.

Now that SpaceX has provided the industry with a powerful and affordable new transport, the question is, what will we put on it?

“Falcon Heavy opens up a new class of payload,” Musk told reporters during a post-launch press conference. “It could launch things direct to Pluto and beyond. No stop needed. You don’t even need a gravity assist or anything. You can launch giant satellites, anything you want.”

Falcon Heavy fairing

The payload fairing holding the Tesla Roadster before take-off.
Pauline Acalin

The 230-foot tall tower is capable of sending 37,000-pound payloads to Mars and 7,700 pound payloads to Pluto. With specs like this, customers such as NASA would be able to more easily afford deep space missions. As it stands today, affordable heavy-lift transport is the main reason NASA hasn’t been able to get back to the Moon.

NASA has its own heavy-lift rocket in development, the Space Launch System (SLS), but the vehicle is years from completion. It would certainly dwarf the Falcon Heavy in payload capability, able to carry a whopping 150,000 to 290,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit.

But what the SLS boasts in power, it falls short of in cost. A single launch will amount to around $1 billion, with a schedule of only one or maybe two launches per year. One of the reasons for the higher figure is that the SLS won’t be reusable; SpaceX’s ability to reuse their boosters drastically cuts the costs involved. SpaceX also thrives with their “constantly testing” approach: the company assesses and immediately implements all collected data, which makes the architecture as a whole more efficient.

Perhaps an efficient way to offset the cost of NASA’s SLS rocket could be their decision to utilize Spacex’s Falcon Heavy to get to the moon at less than a tenth the cost. After all, Falcon Heavy is ready, and SLS is not.

In the meantime, Spaceflight Now's launch schedule has the Falcon Heavy slated to launch Saudi Arabia's Arabsat 6A communications satellite in the first half of 2018, as well as a summer launch for the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program-2 mission, which includes a cluster of military and scientific research satellites.

8 thoughts on “Long-Awaited Falcon Heavy Ready For Business

  1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    This is an impressive achievement, but I wonder why no mention of the Saturn-V rocket, which had a lift capacity of 130 metric tonnes, two and half times Falcon Heavy’s 53 tonnes.

    And sending a Tesla into orbit around the Sun is a cute stunt, until it hits another spacecraft and the insurance companies get involved.

    Elon Musk reminds me of Howard Hughes. Remember the Spruce Goose? Keep your eye on the length of Musk’s fingernails.

    1. mjmorri

      Pardon my cynicism, but when the day finally arrives when a rocket is produced that rivals the Saturn V, it will be more of an embarrassment than an achievement.

  2. falconer0206

    Note: the numbers mentioned here are taken from the S&T article.

    The SLS, while its capacity sounds impressive, really isn’t very exciting. A billion dollars to launch a single payload into orbit and then leave this massive rocket’s components scattered as junk seems a waste. If folks are wondering about where SpaceX will find clients for its Falcon Heavy, what more for such a massive rocket as the SLS. I would be willing to speculate that by the time SLS flies, we could have figured out how to ship components of whatever massive payload exceeds FH capacity over multiple FH launches, and assemble the components in LEO – all the while reusing FH components for multiple $90MM launches. Since the SLS only carries a little more than twice the capacity of FH, two-to-three launches of FH would be able to carry whatever a single SLS launch would carry to LEO. At $90MM a pop, three flights for payload plus assembly (yet TBD), should come in at less than $300MM (let’s say $500MM for the sake of argument to cover incremental costs to assemble in space). This is less than half of the cost of a single launch of SLS and I would bet can be accomplished with three launches of FH is less time than single SLS launch without leaving behind significant quantities of space junk and one-time costs.

    Big rockets are impressive by stats and visuals, but why can’t NASA design SLS to incrporate reusable components now that the reusability madel has been developed and proven to be viable?

    1. Gordon-Nanninga

      Per NASA’s latest pricing the billion dollars is the lowest estimate “to pad”. Their best estimate to orbit is above two billion. Also note anything ave the base 150k lb to orbit adds at least a billion more. So for cargo SLS is worthless.

  3. Rich

    Great article and update.

    I used your link to check out Tony Dunn’s simulation of the car’s orbit and noticed a (relatively) close approach to Mars in October 2020. I went to JPL Horizons (which I use a lot) and the Tesla passes 7.4 million km from Mars barycenter (500@4 as Horizons observer location) on October 7, 2020.

    1. Monica YoungMonica Young

      That’s a great question, John, and I don’t think we know the answer just yet. Musk has said the Falcon Heavy likely won’t carry humans; instead, he is planning to carry crew on the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket).

  4. Gordon-Nanninga

    I am most impressed with landing the boosters near each other. To get enough mass to the mars surface for a manned mission several full stop landings have to be within driving distance.

All comments must follow the Sky & Telescope Terms of Use and will be moderated prior to posting. Please be civil in your comments. Sky & Telescope reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter’s username, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

COMMENT

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.