Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy – the most powerful rocket system since the Space Shuttle – has been successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
As thousands of spectators looked on, the rocket, developed by Musk’s firm SpaceX, lifted clear of Cape Canaveral’s launchpad 39a on 6th Feb at 3:45 PM ET, marking what will surely be seen as a defining moment in the history of the private space sector.
Launch commences at 22.00 minutes into the following video:
With the launch, the vehicle has become the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. Composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than five million pounds of thrust at liftoff, the spacecraft is able to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lb). This is more than twice the payload of the next most powerful rocket, Boeing’s Delta IV Heavy. Critically, largely because key components of the system are designed to return to earth after launch, it can do this at one-third the cost.
Following the launch, SpaceX attempted to land all three of Falcon Heavy’s first stage cores. The two side cores performed successful vertical landings at touchdown zones in Florida whilst the centre core, which the firm had hoped to land on a droneship in the Atlantic, missed its target and was destroyed as it hit the water.
Meanwhile, the upper stage and test payload – a dummy called “Starman” at the wheel of a Cherry red sports car – headed off on a six-month trip to a solar orbit with David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” playing on a loop.
The launch represents a major milestone for Musk’s technology, and illustrates that it is able to provide a heavy lift capability not seen since the Saturn V rockets of the Apollo era. Musk has said that the system could be used for a host of applications, including launching satellites and robots, but at a press conference shortly before the launch ruled out using the system to take humans into space. He told journalists that this will now be the focus of the so-called Big Falcon Rocket, an even larger reusable system powered by a new generation of engines currently under development by SpaceX.