On December 28, SpaceX moved another step closer to its first Falcon Heavy launch, due sometime in January 2018. The 3-booster rocket stood vertical, for the first time, at the famous launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, for pre-launch tests.
Several lucky spectators who happened to be in the vicinity of the KSC launch pad, whether by design or coincidence, actually got to see the raising of the 70-meter-tall rocket – a historic first for the triple-booster space vehicle.
SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket was raised vertical at launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center this morning for testing ahead of liftoff next month. (Image via @ExploreSpaceKSC) https://t.co/miZgMdTe0T pic.twitter.com/EMgGhfURt5
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) December 28, 2017
Capable of generating three times the thrust of a Falcon 9, made possible by 27 Merlin engines – nine to each core – the 229-foot-tall science and technology marvel will be able to carry payloads of up to 63,800 kg into low orbit.
It is all set to become the most powerful in-service rocket, bypassing Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher, which, for now, is the world’s most powerful launch vehicle with a lift-off thrust of 2.9 million pounds from its core engine and two boosters.
However, maximum payload capability can only be achieved if the company decides not to recover the first-stage boosters, which, basically, eats up the rockets propellant reserves, thereby reducing the rocket’s lifting capacity.
With SpaceX already decided on recovering all three first-stage boosters, needless to say, Falcon Heavy will not be carrying the maximum payload when it lifts off next month.
Even when the boosters are not recovered, maximum payload launch into low Earth orbit will require a velocity boost from Earth’s rotation. For that to happen, the rocket will have to be launched to the east from Florida’s Space Coast.
“When Falcon Heavy lifts off in 2018, it will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. With the ability to lift into orbit over 54 metric tons (119,000 lb)—a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel—Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy at one-third the cost,” claims SpaceX on its website.
Falcon Heavy’s two side-boosters, recovered and refurbished from 2016’s Falcon 9 missions, will separate and return to land at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in quick succession, if not simultaneously, while the new center core will detach and land on SpaceX’s droneship in the Atlantic.
Here’s what Elon Musk tweeted after the successful December 22 launch of Falcon 9 – the 18th and last launch for SpaceX in 2017.
If you liked tonight’s launch, you will really like Falcon Heavy next month: 3 rocket cores & 3X thrust. 2 cores return to base doing synchronized aerobatics. 3rd lands on droneship.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 23, 2017
If Elon Musk has not been pulling our legs, we will get to see an “unusual” payload this time around – a red Tesla Roadster.
In a December 22 Instagram post, Musk had uploaded the image of the red car alongside a message captioned “A Red Car for the Red Planet.”
This is what the message said:
“Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.
The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit.”
The mighty Merlins of the Falcon Heavy are expected to give the Roadster enough thrust for it to beat Earth’s gravity, allowing it to go into a heliocentric orbit, about the same distance as between Mars and the sun.
Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A owes its historic significance to the fact that it was the launch pad used for NASA’s Apollo and Space Shuttle missions as well as other NASA launches until it was decommissioned after the July 2011 launch of the space agency’s Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis – the final flight of the Shuttle program.
Yes, it’s the same launch pad from where the Saturn V rocket lifted off on its historic 1969 manned mission to the moon.
Leased by SpaceX and active since early this year for Falcon 9 launches, the iconic pad was modified to support Dragon 2 and Falcon Heavy launches, as well.
Barring the stationary fire test of all 27 first stage engines – which will happen in January before the launch – SpaceX engineers carried out fit checks and other tests before the rocket was lowered down back to a horizontal position.
While SpaceX has not yet released a target date, company officials do confirm that a January launch is certainly on the cards, not long after the hold-down firing of the multiple engines.
Below, you can see the Falcon Heavy being set up at launch pad 39A in a time-lapse video “Spaceflight Now” posted on Twitter.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) December 28, 2017
SpaceX has had a superlative 2017 with 18 launches to its credit, more than any other private-sector spaceflight company in the world.
Also, the December 15 recovery of the Falcon 9 booster made it the 20th successful first-stage retrieval for the spaceflight company, with 14 recoveries this year alone.
The first-stage of Falcon 9 that returned after the spectacular evening launch on December 22 could also have been retrieved but was intentionally allowed to plunge into the ocean.
With the busy launch schedule of 2018, it may well turn out to be as good a year, if not better.