SpaceX Arabsat 6: The Falcon Heavy Gets a Date for First Commercial Launch

SpaceX has tentatively settled on a mid-week launch for Falcon Heavy’s first commercial flight. Following a successful static fire test on Friday morning, SpaceX announced that its largest operational rocket would take to the skies as early as April 9. Of course, that date could still be subject to change.

The Falcon Heavy is scheduled to launch a communications satellite built by Lockheed Martin into orbit for the Saudi Arabian company Arabsat. The so-called “Arabsat 6” mission will attempt to launch from Launch Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 6:36 p.m. Eastern. But SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to explain why the Falcon Heavy’s launch date is especially tentative.

“Static fire data looks good so far,” tweeted Musk. “This is first launch of Falcon Heavy Block 5, so we’re being extra cautious. Launch date might move.”

The Block 5 rocket upgrade first debuted on Falcon 9 and added higher thrust on all of the engines, improved its landing legs, and streamlined the reusability of its first stage. But with a multi-million dollar payload onboard, SpaceX is taking extra precautious to avoid any potential problems. But it’s also worth noting that the company has been on a hot streak lately.

SpaceX completed 21 successful launches last year, becoming a crucial part of the infrastructure that puts satellites into orbit and sends supplies to the International Space Station. Plus, Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage went almost perfectly.

The rocket’s one and only flight took place February 6 of last year and sent Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, along with a crash test dummy known as “Starman,” into an elliptical orbit of Mars and Earth. It was a textbook takeoff achieved just 45 minutes before the launch window closed. On the other hand, there was also room for improvement: The recovery of Falcon Heavy’s three first stage cores could have gone better.

SpaceX successfully recovered its two side boosters, which simultaneously touch back down Earth like a kind of choreographed rocket routine. But the central core missed the “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship and crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, which Musk said was due to some of its return engines failing to ignite during reentry.

April 9 will be Falcon Heavy’s next opportunity to prove that its massive lift power is on track to begin tacking significantly more ambitious commercial space missions. The rocket is essentially three Falcon 9 first stages bundled together. It can lift a 140,600-pound payload into lower Earth orbit — almost triple Falcon 9’s capacity — and could carry a 7,720 lb. satellite to Pluto.

Falcon Heavy landing February 2018
Falcon Heavy's two first-stage side booster landing on February 2018.

SpaceX’s long-term goal is to get organizations, including NASA but also private companies, to commission it to send probes to far off corners of the solar system or, perhaps, supplies to Mars. If conditions are prime and Falcon Heavy pulls a flawless launch, we should expect to see it fly much more often in the future.