There was some concern over the weekend that SpaceX would need to postpone its Falcon Heavy test program because of the US government shutdown, but the company got back on track very quickly after the budget impasse was (temporarily) solved early this week. SpaceX has successfully test fired the Falcon Heavy for the first time ever, proving that if nothing else, the engines will be able to ignite and send the rocket upward. Everything after that is still unknown.
This milestone was what is known as a static fire test. The rocket was locked to the historic launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center for the test, so it didn’t actually go anywhere. The point of this test is to ensure that all 27 Merlin rocket engines on the vehicle could ignite in unison. If even one of the engines fails to work, that could cause a potentially catastrophic imbalance in the vehicle.
The test firing lasted a mere 12 seconds, and you can see the entire event in the video below. The engines created a plume of exhaust, outputting 5.1 million pounds of thrust — that’s about 1.7 million pounds from each of the rocket’s three Falcon 9 cores. Two of them are attached as side boosters, and the center stage has a reinforced superstructure to hold the rocket together. The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, which NASA retired at the end of the Apollo program. That rocket also flew from launch complex 39A, making SpaceX’s upcoming launch quite fitting.
First static fire test of Falcon Heavy complete—one step closer to first test flight! pic.twitter.com/EZF4JOT8e4
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 24, 2018
SpaceX confirms the static test fire went as expected, clearing the way for a real launch soon. How soon? SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hinted on Twitter that the timeline could be as short as a week. When the Falcon Heavy launches, it will carry Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster into space. There’s no practical reason to launch the car, but SpaceX needed some mass to simulate a real payload, and this is exactly the sort of quirky thing Musk would do.
If the launch goes as well as the static test, the Falcon Heavy’s second stage will carry the car into a Mars-adjacent orbit. The three first stage boosters will come back down for landing like a conventional Falcon 9 launch, but landing all three might be tricky considering the higher speed involved. SpaceX sees the Falcon heavy as a vehicle that could send payloads to the moon, Mars, and even farther into the outer solar system. Of course, Musk leaves open the possibility the first test flight will end in an explosion.
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