The Falcon Heavy hype has been building for years, reaching all the way back to CEO Elon Musk’s announcement of the rocket in 2011. After years of development and a few last minute delays, the Falcon Heavy is operational. SpaceX successfully launched the rocket from Cape Canaveral today, Feb. 6, 2018. On board the rocket is Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, which makes it the first car in space.
SpaceX completed a static fire test last month, which ensured that all 27 Merlin rocket engines on the vehicle could ignite simultaneously. That cleared the way for today’s test, but Musk has been carefully controlling expectations. He recently gave the launch a 50-50 chance of success, but he previously said just clearing the tower would be a success in his eyes. The Falcon Heavy far exceeded that standard, though.
The launch seems to have gone amazingly well. The Falcon Heavy is composed of two side booster Falcon 9 rockets, plus a center core Falcon 9 that has been modified to support the added weight of the side boosters. Several minutes after liftoff, the side boosters throttled down and disconnected from the center core. They performed three burns to return to the landing zone and set down at LZ-1 and LZ-2 near launch complex 39-A where the rocket started out. Seeing these boosters come down and land within seconds of each other is jaw-dropping.
The center core continued to push the second stage into space, then it too detached and headed back down. It was too high and going too fast to return to Cape Canaveral, so the plan was to land it on one of SpaceX’s drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean. The feed on the drone ship disappeared as the core approached due to vibrations, and SpaceX hasn’t said what happened yet. Landing this booster was always going to be more difficult because of the higher speed. The delay makes us suspect it crashed into the drone ship. While not ideal, this doesn’t detract from the incredible success of the launch. We’ll update when SpaceX provides more info on the fate of the center core.
The second stage successfully took the “payload” into low Earth orbit. The next step is to begin the burn that will take it into an elliptical heliocentric orbit. The second stage will get near Mars, but will not actually orbit of the red planet. Atop the rocket is Musk’s Tesla Roadster with a mannequin wearing one of SpaceX’s newly designed spacesuits. The car is exposed to space (the faring covering the car was jettisoned shortly after liftoff), allowing for some amazing shots. It’ll probably be a really great Tesla commercial, too.
This successful launch cements SpaceX as the leading private space firm in the world. Even if it lost one booster, it’s the only company with a rocket that can take a car to Mars.
Here’s a live view of the car in space:
Update: Elon Musk says the center core did indeed crash. Only one of its engines reignited for the landing burn, so it missed the drone ship entirely. Still, two out of three isn’t bad when you launch the most powerful rocket in the world.
Elon Musk confirms: center core missed the drone ship. Wasn’t able to relight all three engines, and the one that did relight wasn’t enough to slow it down enough.
— Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) February 7, 2018
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