SpaceX has launchedFalcon Heavy, its most powerful rocket to date.
On Tuesday, the 23-story-high system ignited and blasted off from Launch Complex 39A in Florida, the same platform where the Apollo astronauts took off for the moon decades ago. Minutes later, two of the rocket boosters landed safely back on the ground.
This is the first time Elon Musk’s private space company has tried to launch a rocket quite this big.
Falcon Heavy is re-usable, expandable, and cheaper than the competition. But Musk was careful to emphasise that this launch is still just a test.
“There’s so much that could go wrong,” Musk told reporters on Monday.
At least a couple things didn’t go according to plan. Musk’s Tesla Roadster and its dummy driver named Starman overshot their target to enter Mars orbit. And one rocket booster that was supposed to land atop a drone ship ended up barreling into the Atlantic Ocean and scattering shrapnel on the deck, Musk said.
Take a look at what happened when the massive experiment took off from the Kennedy Space Center:
Falcon Heavy launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX says it’s the most powerful rocket in operation today “by a factor of two.”
At 230 feet high, Falcon Heavy is as tall as a 23-story building.
The rocket system’s engines are capable of generating more than 5 million pounds of thrust. “That’s 4 million pounds of TNT equivalent,” Musk said on Monday.
Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket the US has seen since the Saturn V moon missions took off in the 1970s.
People in Cocoa Beach, Florida lined up, smartphones in hand, to watch the launch happening just a few miles up the coast.
A Falcon Heavy trip costs $US90 million per launch, according to SpaceX. That’s a bargain for this kind of space flight.
It’s about a third of the price of the competition. The rocket’s three recyclable boosters help keep costs low, as long as they return intact.
The test payload was Musk’s old car, which was destined for Mars.
Musk originally said there was a “tiny, tiny chance” that the car sitting in the top of the rocket would hit the red planet. But it didn’t.
The 2008 Tesla Roadster was equipped with three cameras.
So it took some pretty epic interstellar selfies on Tuesday night.
But the Roadster overshot its planned elliptical orbit, which would have looped the car between Mars and the sun.
Source: Elon Musk/Twitter
Instead of spending six months hurling towards Mars orbit, the Tesla payload ended up travelling well past Mars, and now it’s cruising in the asteroid belt.
The car’s unplanned, longer solar orbit stretches from the sun to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Two of the three reusable Falcon Heavy boosters landed safely back on Earth after they shot the car-carrying rocket into space.
The two side boosters landed in perfect synchronisation at Cape Canaveral. Musk said it was “probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen, literally, ever.”
But the third core booster didn’t make it to its final destination on a landing pad in the Atlantic Ocean. “Apparently it hit the water at 300 miles an hour and took out two of the engines on the drone ship,” Musk told reporters on Tuesday evening.
Falcon Heavy had a total of 27 rocket engines on those three re-usable boosters.
The company first successfully salvaged a booster from its Falcon 9 rocket in March of 2017.
That first-stage booster landed itself on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Before that success, SpaceX spent years dealing with a string of dramatic, costly accidents while trying to get their re-usable boosters back to the ground safely in one piece.
But SpaceX can now stake its claim on building the most powerful operational rocket in the solar system.