After witnessing SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch into orbit around Mars yesterday, it is officially the most powerful operational rocket in the world. Its payload consists of Elon Musk’s very own cherry red Tesla Roadster.
While Musk’s SpaceX has been launching rockets into space for quite some time now (including the launch back in December that freaked out all of Los Angeles), the proposed Falcon Heavy launch is the biggest and most significant rocket launch yet — not just for SpaceX but for the entire space travel industry.
In theory, the Falcon Heavy should be able to go further with a larger payload than any other operational rocket that currently exists. This means humans will be able to send larger satellites further into space, return to the moon, and possibly even explore planets previously out of our reach.
If you’ve ever dreamt of setting foot on another planet, or at the very least watching someone else do it, this launch is a big deal.
So, in light of the big launch, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about the Falcon Heavy and its proposed future missions.
How big is it?
First of all, it's big — really big. 70 meters high, to be precise. If launched successfully, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will become the world’s largest operational rocket. The only rocket bigger than the Falcon Heavy is NASA’s Saturn V, which hasn’t been operational since 1973.
SpaceX’s rocket weighs 54 metric tons (119,000 tons) and can carry more than twice the payload of its closest competitor (the Delta IV Heavy) can. It costs about a third of the price to produce.
The rocket is made up of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores. In total that’s 27 Merlin engines that generate more than five million pounds of thrust — about the same as eighteen 747 aircrafts.
On the SpaceX website, this is described as “efficiencies that make Falcon Heavy the most cost-effective heavy-lift launch vehicle in the world. With a total of 27 first-stage engines, Falcon Heavy has engine-out capability that no other launch vehicle can match.”
Put simply, Falcon Heavy is a monster with three separate rockets (all of which are very capable of reaching space on their own) strapped to it.
Why is it launching?
The Falcon Heavy is SpaceX and Elon Musk’s attempt at pushing the boundaries of space travel and launching a larger payload further than ever before. Ultimately, the plan is to use the Falcon Heavy to send humans to the moon and back, as well as to planets such as Mars.
Back in September of last year, Musk outlined his plan to colonize Mars, which included a plan for an Interplanetary Transport System that has been codenamed BFR (Big Fucking Rocket).
Musk says the ultimate goal is to “get you there [Mars] and ensure the basic infrastructure for propellant production and survival is in place.”
When is the launch?
The launch was expected to happen before the end of January, however, the rocket still needed to undergo a static-fire test, during which all engines were fired up for around 12 seconds in order to test their ability to withstand the stress they’ll be under at launch.
The Falcon Heavy itself was first announced back in 2005 but additional testing, updates in technology, and the CRS-7 launch failure have all contributed to years of delays.
It has now officially launched on February 6, 2018 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
At what cost?
In 2016, SpaceX published a price chart that seemed to suggest that a Falcon 9 would cost $62 million while the Falcon Heavy would cost $90 million.
To keep costs down, SpaceX intends to land all three of the Falcon 9 rockets that make up the Falcon Heavy safely back on earth in order to reuse the parts for future launches. Of course, the reusability of the rocket will heavily influence the cost of future launches.
Why all the hype?
NASA states on its website that it plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy could significantly improve the prospects of achieving this goal, possibly even bringing the schedule forward.
The last manned mission to the moon was in 1972. Since then missions have been restricted to flybys and launching rovers on the moon and Mars.
Why is there a roadster inside it?
That's right, there is a Tesla Roadster included in the payload, or as Musk puts it, "a red car for the red planet."
This isn’t the first time Musk has proven to be eccentric, having previously made a guest appearance on an episode of Big Bang Theory. Cheekily, he even attempted to call his Tesla cars Models "S," "E," and "X," but was blocked by Ford. "Model 3 was going to be called Model E, for obvious dumb humor reasons, but Ford sued to block it, so now it is S3X," tweeted Musk. "Totally different :)"
Are any future missions planned?
For a rocket that just successfully launched, there are already a lot of big businesses lining up to get their payloads onboard future Falcon Heavy launches. Arabsat and the United States Air Force are such businesses listed on SpaceX’s launch manifest, alongside Viasat and Inmarsat.
Musk’s red Tesla Roadster is the first payload sent into orbit aboard the rocket, while a trip around the moon is also planned.
The missions outlined in the manifest are just the beginning for the Falcon Heavy, with space exploration being Musk and SpaceX’s main goal. While the rocket will most likely be used to transport heavy payloads further into space, humans are the ultimate aim.
Judging by Elon Musk’s talk on future plans for Mars colonization last year, the Falcon Heavy will be getting a big brother, the Big Fucking Rocket (briefly mentioned above), at some point in the future.
The BFR will be the main vessel for setting up life on mars, while the Falcon Heavy is a stepping stone to the BFR and could be used as a means to explore space before the bigger rocket is ready.
Chances of success
Even if the rocket successfully completes its pre-launch tests, there is no guarantee that the official launch will be a success.
Even Elon Musk has admitted that there is a high possibility the rocket blows up. He was quoted as saying, “just bear in mind that there is a good chance this monster rocket blows up, so I wouldn't put anything of irreplaceable sentimental value on it.”
What are the doubters saying?
Not everyone is as enamored with the idea of colonizing Mars as Musk is. The Space Review looks at the legal ramifications of the plans to colonize Mars, specifically whether Musk and SpaceX are licensed for activities such as colonization and whether the United States government would even allow such a venture.
Even NASA is somewhat suspicious of the timeline Musk presented. He aims to send crewed missions to Mars by 2024, which is more than a decade ahead of what NASA is planning.
Others believe his having a stake in so many different companies that interact with one another on some level creates financial conflicts of interest on too grand a scale to support.
In other news, here are the best gadgets from this year’s CES.