The time has finally come for SpaceX to launch its Falcon Heavy rocket. A launch license has been issued for the giant vehicle to take flight this Tuesday. It’s a mission that many have been waiting for since 2011 when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk first announced plans to develop the vehicle. Now, after seven years and numerous delays, the launch of the rocket is imminent — and it could be a game-changer for SpaceX.
Here are all the details you need to know about this launch and why it’s such a big deal for both SpaceX and the industry.
What is the Falcon Heavy?
The essence of the rocket is right there in its name: it’s the heavy-lift version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle consists of three Falcon 9 cores strapped together, giving the rocket an awesome amount of power. And since each Falcon 9 has nine main rocket engines, there are 27 total engines that will all be used to send this vehicle to space. No other working rocket has ever used so many.
All of this hardware can supposedly create more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. That makes the Falcon Heavy capable of putting around 140,000 pounds of cargo into lower Earth orbit, earning the title of the most powerful rocket in the world.
Why should I care?
Simply put, using a very powerful rocket means you can get a lot more stuff into space. And that could open up a whole new line of business for SpaceX — from sending heavier satellites into orbit to sending people into deep space. Plus the Falcon Heavy is fairly cheap: each flight of the rocket starts at just $90 million. The next most powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, runs about $350 million per launch, according to its manufacturer, the United Launch Alliance. And the Delta IV Heavy can put about half as much into orbit as the Falcon Heavy.
Successfully flying this powerful rocket could have big implications for the space industry. SpaceX could use the Falcon Heavy to send larger national security satellites into orbit that its Falcon 9 rocket cannot currently fly. A cheap, powerful rocket like this could catch the eye of NASA, too. Robotic science missions to Mars and other worlds could launch on the vehicle, or the Falcon Heavy could be used in NASA’s plans to go back to the Moon, by sending up cargo, landers, habitat modules, and even people.
Plus, SpaceX says it will send two paying customers around the Moon using the Falcon Heavy at some point in the future, so space tourism seems to be an option as well.
Where is it launching from?
The Falcon Heavy is taking off from a historic launch site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, called LC-39A. The site was used to launch the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon as well as numerous Space Shuttle missions — including the final Shuttle launch. In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA to use the pad at 39A for the company’s flights, and it has since modified the site to accommodate launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.
What is the Falcon Heavy going to do?
For the first Falcon Heavy flight, SpaceX is going to try to launch it to orbit without blowing up. This is a demonstration mission, meant to see if the Falcon Heavy can simply send a payload to orbit. That’s why the rocket’s cargo is pretty silly: it’s Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster, made even sillier with the possible inclusion of a dummy in the passenger seat, dressed in a brand-new SpaceX suit, naturally. The Falcon Heavy is supposed to put the car (as well as the passenger, presumably) into an orbit around the Sun known as a Hohmann transfer orbit. This path will take the car as far out from the Sun as the distance of Mars’ orbit. However, the car won’t be going anywhere near Mars, so there’s no risk of the car contaminating the planet with Earth microbes.
Getting the car into space will be a somewhat complicated process: the Falcon Heavy will launch with all three cores together, but the two outer cores will break away during the ascent. Like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy is partially reusable, so these cores will attempt to land back on Earth once they detach. The pair will head back to Cape Canaveral and touch down at SpaceX’s two concrete landing pads on the coast — aptly named Landing Zone 1 and Landing Zone 2.
The center core will also return to Earth, but this one will head toward the Atlantic and land on one of SpaceX’s autonomous drone ships in the ocean. It’s something of a highly choreographed rocket ballet, but if it works, all three cores could potentially be used to fly future missions. In fact, the outer cores of the Falcon Heavy have even flown before: one put up a satellite for Thaicom in May 2016, while the other flew cargo to the International Space Station in August 2016.
What happens if it’s successful?
Then the Falcon Heavy has some more flights scheduled. The vehicle is booked to a put up a large communications satellite for operator Arabsat of Saudi Arabia sometime in early 2018. And the Falcon Heavy is also slated to launch a test payload for the US Air Force no earlier than June. That launch will allow the Air Force to judge whether or not the Falcon Heavy is ready to fly national security payloads, which could become a big market for the vehicle. The flight will also contain a cluster of secondary satellites, too, including a special test spacecraft from the Planetary Society called LightSail. The probe is designed to deploy a large, thin sail that uses radiation from the Sun to propel through space.
The Falcon Heavy is also expected to fly two additional hefty satellites — one for Inmarsat and another for Viasat. But beyond that, there aren’t that many flights planned. Business may start booming for the rocket, though, once potential customers see it fly.
What happens if it blows up?
Well, it’s not good. The repercussions of such a failure somewhat depend on where it blows up, though. If it explodes in the middle of its ascent to space, the rocket probably won’t do any damage to anything. However, it does mean that the Falcon Heavy isn’t quite ready for regular spaceflight just yet, and the company might want to do more test flights before launching customers’ satellites. It wouldn’t be good for SpaceX’s reputation either, as critics would likely use the failure as a reason to doubt the company’s reliability.
Now, if the Falcon Heavy blows up near the pad, that’s a different story. When one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9s exploded on the ground in 2016, it caused extensive damage to the launchpad the vehicle was located on. The pad was then incapable of hosting launches for nearly a year, until SpaceX repaired and upgraded the site. If the Falcon Heavy causes major damage to the pad at LC-39A, the site could be out of commission for a while.
That would put the Falcon Heavy out of service for a while, too. Right now, LC-39A is the only one of SpaceX’s pads capable of hosting Falcon Heavy flights. The company has two other operational launchpads — one in California and another one in Florida — but those are only equipped to launch the Falcon 9 at the moment. It’s possible the pads could be updated to accommodate Falcon Heavy flights, but such upgrades would take a while to complete.
Additionally, an explosion near the pad could potentially delay future human missions to the International Space Station from Florida. SpaceX is currently developing a spacecraft called the Crew Dragon to send astronauts to the station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and the first crewed flight is supposed to launch from LC-39A later this year. The pad at 39A has a very tall tower next to it — a remnant of the Shuttle missions — that will eventually hold a walkway for future astronauts to travel across to get into the Crew Dragon. But if that tower gets damaged, it will need to be repaired before crews can fly. The company’s other Florida pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station doesn’t have the infrastructure in place that would allow astronauts to board a rocket.
So hopefully the Falcon Heavy at least clears the launchpad, or those plans could get quite complicated. Musk has said he would consider it a win if the Falcon Heavy doesn’t cause pad damage.
When is the launch happening?
The launch is currently scheduled to take off on Tuesday, February 6th. SpaceX is targeting 3:45PM right now but only has until 4PM to launch the rocket. However, this is the first flight of the Falcon Heavy — ever — so technological glitches could arise that push the launch back a couple of days. Weather could also cause a delay, but there’s an 80 percent chance that weather will be favorable, according to Patrick Military Air Force Base at the Cape.
How can I watch the launch?
SpaceX will be live-streaming the mission on YouTube, which will be embedded in this post. Coverage should begin shortly before liftoff, so check back then to watch one of the most anticipated rocket launches in the last decade.
Update February 6th, 1:50 PM ET: This post has been updated to reflect the new starting time of the launch.
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