SpaceX pulled off a historic landing Thursday, as the third and final core of the world’s most powerful operational rocket touched down on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The Falcon Heavy, which sent up a satellite from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center moments prior, successfully completed its first commercial mission and, for the first time, landed all three cores without incident.
The rocket took off from Launch Complex 39A at 6:36 p.m. Eastern time. Three minutes after launch, the center core powered down and the main engine detached. Eight minutes after, the side boosters simultaneously landed on two land-based pads. At the 10-minute mark, the center core landed on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship, making a change from the Heavy’s previous flight where it missed its target by 300 feet and hit the ocean at 300 mph.
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“The Falcons have landed,” founder Elon Musk wrote on Twitter in the moments after the feat.
The rocket carried the Arabsat-6A satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. This is a craft weighing around 6,000 kilograms (13,227 pounds), designed to bring telecommunications to the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. It’s the first commercial flight for the rocket after its test flight in February 2018, where it sent Musk’s red Tesla Roadster into orbit. It’s also the first launch for the “Block 5” variant, which offers a maximum thrust of 2,550 tons, or 5.1 million pounds. This ranks at around 10 percent higher than the thrust in the February 2018 demonstration mission.
The drone ships have played a key role in helping to recover boosters and bring down the costs of spaceflight. The Atlantic Ocean ship works alongside Just Read the Instructions in the Pacific Ocean, both named after Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.
Musk also confirmed that both halves of the fairing have been recovered, the shield that helps protect the satellite. Fairing recovery has been a big pain point for SpaceX, which built the Mr. Steven ship to help collect it without falling into the water. These fairings will be used for launching SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet project to deliver global internet.
The Falcon Heavy offers an impressive amount of power. The Falcon Heavy is capable of lifting 140,660 pounds to low Earth orbit, more than double that of the currently operational Delta IV. 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.