Falcon Heavy, the world’s largest operational rocket, is about to try (again) to make history. The mission will send the Arabsat-6A satellite into lower orbit from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will be the Falcon Heavy’s second attempt, after strong winds on Tuesday required postponing the launch.
The launch window will open at 6:35 p.m. EST and close at 8:31 p.m. EST, on Friday, April 12. The satellite will be deployed approximately 34 minutes after liftoff, according to SpaceX’s webcast.
Assuming today’s winds are more favorable, the Falcon Heavy will deliver Lockheed Martin’s Arabsat-6A satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit, where it will help expand television and cellular services for the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
It’s the first mission since Falcon Heavy took on its first flight on February 6, 2018. During that mission, the rocket lifted up Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster into a trajectory approaching Mars. The car contained a dummy kitted with SpaceX’s spacesuit in the driver’s seat, with the in-car sound system playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on loop. The dashboard has a reference to the sci-fi novel series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a “Don’t Panic” sticker recalling the advice given by the guide within the novel. It also contains a “5D quartz laser storage device” containing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation book trilogy.
SpaceX is set to save all three cores of the Falcon Heavy for this mission. The first two will land at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, while the third will land a little while later on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. This is the same general plan as used for the previous mission, but while the first two boosters landed safely, the third central core crashed into the ocean at 300 mph, missing its target by 300 feet.
Falcon Heavy: What Time Is the Launch?
The primary launch window is set to open at 6:35 p.m. Eastern time and close around two hours later at 8:32 p.m. That means the launch should start around these times:
- 3:35p.m. Pacific time
- 11:35 p.m. British Summertime
- 12:35 a.m. Central European time (Thursday)
- 6:35 a.m. China Standard time (Thursday)
- 8:35 a.m. Australian Eastern time (Thursday)
The satellite is set to deploy around 34 minutes after launch. The three cores will then complete their landing.
A backup launch window is set to open on Thursday, April 11, at 6:35 p.m. Eastern time running until around two hours later at 8:31 p.m. Eastern time.
Falcon Heavy: How to Watch
The webcast is set to start 20 minutes before the launch. It can be viewed here:
Alternatively, viewers can visit this link to see the launch via YouTube.
Falcon Heavy: The Story Behind the Rocket
The vehicle is comprised of 27 Merlin engines spread out over three cores, roughly equivalent to three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. That means while the rocket has the same 12-foot diameter and 230-foot height as its smaller brother, the Falcon Heavy’s 40-foot width means it looks far wider. The whole thing weighs a staggering 3.1 million pounds. By comparison, the Falcon 9 weighs just 1.2 million pounds.
The Heavy’s first mission sent up Musk’s red Roadster, which has since been circling the planets. The WhereIsRoadster website has been tracking the car since its launch, and in November 2018 it showed the car had swung past Mars and was now set to swing back toward Earth. The car orbits the sun every 557 days, meaning it’s expected to complete its first orbit on August 16, 2019.
The Falcon Heavy’s first mission for a client involves a more conventional payload. The Arabsat 6A weighs around 6,000 kilograms (13,227 pounds). While the Falcon 9 is capable of sending 8,300 kilograms (18,300 pounds) into a geosynchronous transfer orbit, those figures assume the rocket won’t be landing after the mission. SpaceX plans to save all three cores from the Falcon Heavy mission, meaning it will be able to send the heavy Arabsat craft into orbit while saving enough fuel to land safely after the mission.
Conditions ahead of a planned Tuesday launch seemed unfavorable as of Monday, with the Air Force claiming that the scheduled 6:36 p.m. Eastern time launch on Tuesday was expected to have 30 percent favorable conditions, a figure that rose to 80 percent for a Wednesday launch. SpaceX subsequently shifted the launch back for better conditions.
While this is the second launch of the Falcon Heavy, it’s the first for the “Block 5” variant. This new iteration, which underwent its first static test fire on Friday, offers a maximum thrust of 2,550 tons, or 5.1 million pounds. This ranks as around 10 percent higher than the thrust in the February 2018 demonstration mission, where Musk explained that the rocket would create 4.7 million pounds.
The Falcon Heavy is capable of lifting 140,660 pounds to low Earth orbit, more than double that of the currently-operational Delta IV. SpaceX claims this figure is greater than a Boeing 737 jet plane fully loaded with crew, passengers, fuel and luggage. Only the Saturn V, which last flew in 1973 and could send 310,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, beats the Falcon Heavy.
These upgrades come with a hefty price tag. While a standard launch for the Falcon 9 cost $62 million in 2018, the company’s website states that the Falcon Heavy costs a staggering $90 million for launch. This figure rises to $150 million when using a fully expendable variant. That’s still an incredible saving when compared to the Delta IV, estimated to cost $350 million per launch. The Falcon 9’s booster costs $46.5 million, making it a lucrative component to recover, but it is unclear how much the Falcon Heavy’s boosters cost.
Although the Heavy makes for an impressive ship, it could pale in comparison to what comes next. The Starship, announced in September 2017 under the name “BFR,” is expected to send 100 tons to low Earth orbit and generate 5,400 tons of liftoff thrust. The ship is huge, with its original version measuring 348 feet tall and 9.7 million pounds of mass. The ship is designed to be fully reusable, with its Raptor engines fueled using liquid oxygen and methane, unlike the liquid oxygen and rocket propellant used for the Merlin engines. This use of an alternative fuel could enable voyagers to harvest fuel on other planets and set up propellant depots, which could help power trips to Mars and beyond.