SpaceX on Tuesday launched its Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA's Cape Canaveral, Fla., launchpad, with the acclaimed rocket taking its payload -- CEO Elon Musk's red Tesla Roadster -- into orbit.
The Falcon Heavy, the world's most powerful rocket, boasting 27 engines, was originally meant to launch in 2013 or 2014 after being announced in 2011. However, numerous engineering setbacks and failures of SpaceX's smaller rockets, Falcon 9, continually delayed the launch. Having said that, yesterday's launch all seemed to go smoothly, with two of three strap-on boosters landing on the drone pads -- one did not land -- proving in the process that this could be a reusable rocket platform. (See SpaceX Shows Off Falcon Heavy Rocket on Launchpad.)
Left: the rocket's launch. Right: Two of the three reusable boosters landing successfully. The third did not land. Click images to enlarge. (Images: SpaceX)
After the boosters had fallen away, the upper portion of the rocket -- the part carrying Musk's car -- ignited twice more. After the first ignition, SpaceX put the rocket into a "coast" mode for six hours, showing it can do a certain type of orbit which is necessary for Air Force maneuvers. During this stage it passed the Van Allen belts, parts of high radiation which surround the earth. This could have been a problem for the Falcon Heavy -- the fuel could have frozen or the oxygen vaporized, according to Musk -- but the CEO later tweeted that the third burn after the coast and passing the belts was successful, meaning it is now in orbit and heading towards the asteroid belt -- much further than originally anticipated.
The success of the Falcon Heavy's launch is a big boon for the space industry: it means that companies or governments from around the world could contract SpaceX to launch satellites or other large habitats for space stations, at a relatively cheap price -- a Falcon Heavy flight starts at $90 million, compared to NASA's upcoming Space Launch System, at $1 billion.
Left: lift-off for the Falcon Heavy. Right: a wide shot of the rocket's launch, showing its curved trajectory. Click images to enlarge. (Images: SpaceX)
Already the Falcon Heavy has two commissions: launching a new Saudi Arabian communications satellite, named Arabsat 6A, into orbit sometime in the first half on 2018, and a test payload for the US government, to certify the Falcon Heavy for national security launches. After that, the future of the world's most powerful rocket is still, er, up in the air, but missions to Mars or returning humans to the moon have all been posited as ideas for the future.