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Feb 6, 2018 | 20:24 GMT

4 mins read

Falcon Heavy Rocket Flies Like an Eagle

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk delivers a presentation while standing beside scale models of the rockets his company produces.
(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • SpaceX's successful first launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket cements the company atop the space industry, giving it the world's most powerful active rocket.
  • Adding the Falcon Heavy to its arsenal will allow SpaceX to secure more contracts for inserting heavier payloads into higher orbits.
  • But SpaceX is not done yet, and the Falcon Heavy may only be in service for five to ten years as SpaceX develops a more powerful successor in the future.

SpaceX's process of disrupting the space industry remains long and prosperous. The private company has successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket, sending its "payload" spacecraft, which in this case carries founder Elon Musk's personal midnight cherry-colored Tesla Roadster, on the path to its Earth-Mars orbit around the sun. SpaceX is far and away the leader of the space exploration private sector, having seized on a distinctive, multi-pronged strategy to increase the frequency of its launches while driving costs down. The company has taken advantage of industry competition to negotiate lower costs for its materials, while at the same time utilizing savvy techniques to retool and sometimes completely reuse various rocket designs and models.

With the Falcon Heavy's development and launch, SpaceX has again applied its money-saving ethos to make industry strides. Instead of designing a new rocket from scratch, the company has essentially strapped together three of its smaller Falcon 9 launch vehicles to achieve the level of power needed to allow the payload it is carrying — Musk's Roadster — to escape Earth's gravitational pull. SpaceX competitor United Launch Alliance uses a similar technique for its Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The rocket's initial propulsion was done by three nine-engine cores, with each core being essentially identical to the first stage of SpaceX's smaller Falcon 9 rocket, to provide an initial thrust of 22,819 kN, or roughly the equivalent of 18 Boeing 747's. This make the Falcon Heavy the most powerful rocket to be successfully sent on a maiden voyage to space since NASA's Saturn V — which would eventually carry the Apollo missions — was launched in 1967. After the three cores separated from the rocket, one final engine propelled the stage two section and the Roadster further into space, before the nose cone split open and released the Roadster on its path. The car is expected to reach its final orbit around the sun in October 2018.

The Falcon Heavy launch was ambitious for many reasons, including that it provided SpaceX with its first opportunity to try to successfully land three engine cores at once so that they could be reused. In the past, the company had succeeded in landing and reusing single cores from previous launches. On Feb. 6, SpaceX upped the ante for itself, landing its two booster cores simultaneously. The company has not yet confirmed whether it successfully landed the center core on its drone ship target.

This massive accomplishment for SpaceX marks another step toward the company's longer term goal of sending crewed missions into space — and potentially outpacing private sector competitors like Boeing to earn valuable NASA contracts. A successful Falcon Heavy, which can carry heavy loads such as certain military satellites into higher orbits than any other active rocket, puts one more piece of SpaceX's puzzle in place.

The company's larger plan is to launch its first crewed missions into space using the lighter but less powerful Falcon 9 rocket, but it hopes to eventually use the Falcon Heavy to send private passengers farther distances, such as on trips beyond the International Space Station or around the moon. (SpaceX initially hoped to achieve this goal by the end of 2018, but it already had to postpone the initial unmanned Falcon Heavy launch several times since the initial announcement, so that timeline has likely been extended.)

Despite having passed so many milestones in recent years — from the landing of its reusable rockets both on land and at sea to the subsequent reuse of its flight-proven rockets — SpaceX is still far from completing its most powerful and advanced rocket: the BFR. The company only unveiled the existence of the BFR in September 2017, and it is still very much in the development stages. But once it's complete, the BFR will be a single rocket — with a single booster — that is three times as powerful as the Falcon Heavy.

One thing is for sure at this point: SpaceX is nowhere near done making its mark on the space industry. The private company will continue causing shockwaves among its competitors, forcing them to adapt, innovate or struggle — and ultimately contributing to a cheaper and more competitive industry that will make space access easier than ever.

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