Falcon Heavy Launch Paves the Way for Starlink and Air Force Satellites

Falcon Heavy has flown its first commercial mission, and there’s plenty more where that came from.

The world’s most powerful operational rocket sent up the Arabsat-6A communications satellite from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Thursday, demonstrating its commercial viability following its test launch in February 2018. SpaceX successfully landed all three cores, paving the way for their reuse in future missions.

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A big draw of the Falcon Heavy is its cheap launch cost compared to its power. While a standard launch for the Falcon 9 cost $62 million in 2018, the company’s website states that the Falcon Heavy costs just $90 million per launch for around triple the power. This figure rises to $150 million when using a fully expendable variant. It’s incredible savings when compared to the Delta IV, estimated to cost $350 million per launch despite packing only half the liftoff thrust.

The vehicle is comprised of 27 Merlin engines spread out over three cores, roughly equivalent to three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, offering over five million pounds of liftoff thrust. 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.

Falcon Heavy Demo Mission
 Falcon Heavy

Falcon Heavy: What’s Next

Falcon Heavy has a number of missions planned for its behemoth:

  • 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.
  • The STP-2 is scheduled for a launch, also with the Air Force. This was originally targeted for June 2018. This will cover several small satellites, including the Prox-1, a small satellite from Georgia Tech.
  • Viasat will launch the Viasat-3 using the rocket. This launch, announced October 2018, is expected to take place sometime between 2020 and 2022.

SpaceX also plans to reuse the fairing from the Falcon Heavy to launch the Starlink communications satellites. This is part of the firm’s big goal to deliver global internet service with speeds of up to one gigabit.

Falcon Heavy: How It Got Here

SpaceX’s Arabsat-6A mission this week was the first mission since Falcon Heavy took on its inaugural test flight on February 6, 2018. During that mission, the rocket lifted up Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster into a trajectory approaching Mars. 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 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. It also contains a “5D quartz laser storage device” containing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation book trilogy.

While Thursday marked 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 the previous week, 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.

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.