Falcon Heavy: SpaceX's Most Epic Rocket Is Nearing Its First Real Mission

The Tesla Roadster-firing rocket is about to take on its next challenge.

The Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket in operation, is about to undertake its first commercial mission. Documents this week revealed SpaceX is planning to launch a satellite using the vessel sometime in a six-month window this year. The rocket made headlines with its imaginative test mission last year, which saw a red Tesla Roadster shot off toward the orbit of Mars.

The rocket has captured the imagination of observers. It’s best explained as three Falcon 9s strapped together, the rocket SpaceX uses to regularly send satellites into orbit. The three Falcon Heavy cores contain nine Merlin engines each for a total of 27, creating more than five million pounds of thrust at liftoff. The Falcon Heavy has the power to lift 141,000 pounds into orbit, a feat bested only by NASA’s Saturn V that last flew in 1973. It measures nearly 230 feet tall, 40 feet wide, and a staggering 3.1 million pounds in weight. Don’t drop it on your toe.

Its initial flight in February 2018 was classic Elon Musk: the Falcon Heavy’s payload contained the CEO’s red Tesla Roadster, complete with a “Starman” dummy in the driver’s seat kitted out with a company-designed spacesuit. The dashboard had the words “Don’t Panic” inscribed, a reference to Douglas Adams’ sci-fi classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The in-car sound system played David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” on repeat, as it made its in orbit toward the red planet. Ahead of the launch, Musk told the press that he was “tripping balls.”

SpaceX Starman
SpaceX's Starman.

In November, SpaceX fans started getting excited. One Twitter user called “Manic_Marge” was walking her dog near the Hawthorne campus, when she spotted a cloaked object leaving on the back of a truck. The object bore a strong resemblance to a side core. The next day, another community member spotted a similar-looking truck 370 miles away in Maricopa, Arizona. Fans commended the user for a “stinkin’ badass” discovery.

Falcon Heavy Launch: When Will It Take Place?

The Falcon Heavy will fly again sometime between March 7 and September 7 this year. That’s according to launch and landing documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission. The rocket is expected to fly from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Falcon Heavy Launch: What Will It Launch?

The rocket is expected to launch the Arabsat 6A satellite into geostationary orbit. This is a communications satellite developed by Lockheed Martin, designed to bring internet, TV, and cellular services to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The launch, first announced in September 2015, has been a long time coming. The satellite weighs around 13,227 pounds: had a Falcon 9 flown it, there likely wouldn’t have been enough propellant left to land the first-stage booster after launch.

“Arabsat 6A and its companion satellite, Hellas Sat 4/SaudiGeoSat 1 are the most advanced commercial communications satellites we’ve ever built,” Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of commercial civil space for Lockheed Martin, said in a statement. “The modernized LM 2100 that these satellites are built on is packed with new innovations, including solar arrays that are 30 percent lighter and 50 percent more powerful, upgraded flight software and more efficient propulsion capabilities resulting in longer maneuver life.”

Falcon Heavy Demo Mission
 Falcon Heavy's demo mission lifting off.

Falcon Heavy Launch: What Will Happen After Lift Off?

SpaceX expects to land all three cores after liftoff. The side boosters are expected to complete a land-based landing at Cape Canaveral, while the third central core will land on the Of Course I Still Love You autonomous drone ship.

This is essentially the same plan as used by the original Falcon Heavy test flight. Unfortunately, last time SpaceX tried to land the core on the drone ship, it clipped the vessel at 300 mph and the main core landed some 300 feet from the ship. The failure destroyed two of the drone ship’s engines in the process. Musk was in good spirits at the time, noting that it would make for some “pretty fun footage.”

Falcon Heavy Launch: Are There Any More Launches Scheduled?

Yes! SpaceX lists four future launches on its website beyond the Arabsat mission, all also lifting off from Launch Complex 39A:

  • An Inmarsat mission for its communications satellite.
  • The United States Air Force will lift off AFSPC-52 using the Falcon Heavy, a $130 million contract announced in June 2018. This is a classified mission set to launch late in the 2020 fiscal year.
  • Another Air Force launch for the STP-2. This was originally targeted for June 2018. It’s expected to launch several small satellites, including the Prox-1, a Georgia Tech student-built SmallSat.
  • Viasat will launch the Viasat-3 using the rocket. This launch, announced October 2018, is expected to take place sometime between 2020 and 2022.

It’s looking to become a big year for Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy Side Cores Land Side-by-Side