SpaceX is working toward a much-anticipated launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, and it’s confirming an impressive twist to the event. A SpaceX spokesperson says the company will attempt the first-ever triple landing of its Falcon 9 booster engines. That, of course, assumes the rocket does not explode on lift-off, which CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly reminded us is a possibility. In fact, he’s saying that an awful lot.
SpaceX is targeting the launch for Tuesday, February 6, but there’s a backup window the following day if the weather conspires to spoil the first one. The rocket won’t carry a “real” payload, but Elon Musk has graciously donated his Tesla Roadster to act as ballast at the top of the rocket. The car’s eventual destination is a heliocentric orbit that passes close to Mars. (Update: You can watch the launch live below; it’s set for Tuesday 1:30pm EST.)
The Falcon Heavy is basically three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. The center booster has been structurally reinforced to support the side boosters, but the design is otherwise unchanged from the one SpaceX has successfully landed more than 20 times so far.
After liftoff, the side boosters will detach and return to the surface, landing at SpaceX’s Landing Zones 1 and 2 (known as LZ-1 and LZ-2) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX has never failed with a surface landing, so these should be a breeze. The center booster has to burn for longer and will be at a higher speed when it releases the second stage. That booster will aim for a landing on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean. That one will no doubt be more tricky.
If everything goes perfectly, SpaceX will end up with a Tesla Roadster in orbit of the sun and three intact boosters back on Earth. In a worst-case scenario, the Falcon heavy could blow up on the launch pad. That doesn’t seem likely now that SpaceX has successfully completed the static fire test. Another possibility is that the Falcon Heavy clears the tower but fails to reach space. Musk has said he’d consider that a success, but he’s probably trying to temper expectations.
When the Falcon Heavy is in operation, it will be the most powerful launch vehicle in the world since the Saturn V was retired. SpaceX will be able to lift around 37,000 pounds to Mars. That’s more than 12 Tesla Roadsters. Musk is really selling himself short just sending the one.