By Mark Fairlie
US entrepreneur Elon Musk made history yet again this week upon successfully launching his latest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, into space.
Taking off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on February 6th, the Falcon Heavy is said to be the most powerful spacecraft since the development of the shuttle system.
Funding the project is private American aerospace manufacturer, SpaceX. In 2010, they became the first to launch a privately funded liquid-propellent rocket into orbit with the Falcon 1. Thanks to its successful debut, the Falcon Heavy is now being hailed as the world’s most capable launch vehicle to date.
The company’s CEO and chief designer, Elon Musk, has said this will be “game-over for all other heavy-lift rockets.”
Designed to carry a maximum payload to low-earth orbit of 64 tonnes – equal to launching five double-decker buses into orbit – the Falcon Heavy also has a performance of more than double that of the world’s second most powerful rocket; the Delta IV Heavy.
Despite its load carrying capabilities, SpaceX opted for a smaller payload for the test flight – Musk’s own Tesla sports car with a space-suited mannequin in the driver’s seat. The company also revealed that the car would also carry several cameras, as well as a radio set to play a David Bowie soundtrack on repeat for the duration of the journey.
Musk, as reported by the BBC, warned that the latest test flight was ‘risky’ well before lift-off, telling reporters that he had “this image of just a giant explosion on the pad, a wheel bouncing down the road.
“But fortunately, that’s not what happened.”
The vehicle uses three Falcon 9 booster cores, tripling the capabilities of SpaceX’s earlier design. SpaceNews reported that Musk previously said the test flight would be necessary to review the configuration of these boosters, which would be impossible to test on the ground, meaning the risks are extremely high.
He said he was most concerned about the “relative interactions of the three core boosters,” for example how they would react to shockwaves in the atmosphere. If they survive this stage, then they would be in “much more known territory.”
This part of the launch was considered a success, with two of the three boosters returning to Earth in controlled landings, touching ground virtually at the same time. Musk said the booster landings were “epic”, and “probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen, literally”.
The third booster, however, was due to land on a drone ship several hundred kilometres from the launch site but was unable to slow its descent. It missed its target vessel and was destroyed upon hitting the water at more than 500km/h.
Falcon Heavy’s journey
The second stage of the flight involved a six-hour coast as Falcon Heavy entered orbit. This was considered another highly risky part of the mission as it pushed the craft through the Van Allen Belts.
“It’s going to get whacked pretty hard” with charged particles, Musk warned Space News, with the added risk that the fuel could freeze, or the liquid oxygen evaporate.
If it survives this, the Falcon Heavy will then release its payload. This will demonstrate the craft’s ability to send payloads directly into geostationary orbit, landing it in a predetermined location – a necessity for future national security missions.
For this particular test flight, the craft is programmed to release the Tesla car into a heliocentric orbit between the Earth and Mars. Here, the orbit will take the car as far as 400 million kilometres from Earth.
Musk said this will “essentially be an Earth-Mars cycler,” adding that there was only an “extremely tiny” chance of the car colliding with Mars.
What does the mission mean for the future of space exploration?
Not only has Falcon Heavy broken records as the most powerful rocket to date, it’s low manufacturing cost and ability to safely recover and reuse boosters in future missions could also revolutionise the aerospace industry.
According to Foreign Policy, SpaceX prices for space launch have been the lowest in the industry since 2013. Falcon 9 rockets are the cheapest on the market, at a published price of $56.5 million per launch. However, in 2014, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell spoke about the ability to reuse Falcon 9 parts, as has since been achieved in the Falcon Heavy mission, reports Parabolic Arc.
“If we get this right, and we’re trying very hard to get this right, we’re looking at launches to be in the 5 to 7-million-dollar range, which would really change things dramatically,” she said.
That would leave the main costs for future projects as the cost of fuel and other mission operations expenses rather than manufacturing.
As Musk said in 2004,
“Henry Ford didn’t invent the internal combustion engine. But he found out how to make one at low cost, and that’s the appropriate analogy here.”
Reusable boosters like those used in Falcon Heavy could greatly reduce the cost of access to space in the future; leading to more affordable and frequent space-based enterprise.