For those of you who watched SpaceX launch the Falcon Heavy yesterday, there’s good news, there’s great news, there’s bad news, then there’s interesting news.
As I wrote about before, the measure of success for this mission was to just get the rocket off Launchpad 39A before the thing exploded, so it didn’t damage the historic launchpad. Of course, 39A is the same pad that launched the Space Shuttle missions and dates back all the way to the Apollo program!
The big unknown was the amount of aerodynamic forces being applied to the rocket itself as it ascended through the atmosphere. SpaceX wasn’t certain what would happen when the rocket reached Max-Q, the maximum amount of dynamic pressure. And with all 27 of its Merlin 1D engines roaring, it was also possible that the whole thing would vibrate itself apart!
The good news
As you’re well aware, the rocket cleared the pad and is in deep space now! If you missed the live feed of the launch, you can watch the live feed on the SpaceX YouTube page, or watch the clips that I trimmed down and posted on aSE and my Elon Musk/SpaceX page Esteemed Space Guy Memes.
I watched the launch live with my six year old, watched it three more times with my eight year old, then a few more times with my girlfriend, and a lot more times on my own. Every single time, I get goosebumps.
Full Falcon Heavy launch:
Falcon Heavy side boosters landing nearly simultaneously:
The great news
The payload for this flight, Elon’s own Tesla Roadster, made it to space. Not only that, but SpaceX had three cameras on Stage 2 of the Falcon Heavy to show the truly awesome view Starman, the driver of the Roadster, had.
The reason the car was launched is multi-faceted. As mentioned before, success would be clearing the launchpad without exploding, so it would be rather risky to send an expensive satellite into orbit with such a high chance of total vehicle loss. So when doing a test flight such as this, a payload of some type is desired to simulate the effects of a real payload that will come on a future mission. Instead of simply putting a weight into it, Musk elected to engage in some cross-promotion with another one of his companies, Tesla. Plus, it served as a chance to show off SpaceX’s sleek-looking spacesuit (though, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that SpaceX rigged the suit to see how it withstands the vacuum of space).
What resulted is surreal, inspiring, and honestly made me tear up when I first saw them (okay… and now, too!). They’re the precise definition of awesome. There’s no other way to describe them than ‘out of this world.’
I live streamed SpaceX’s original feed of Starman hanging out in the Roadster to Esteemed Space Guy Memes, but added (royalty free) music to it. Flat-earthers showed up, and hilarity ensued.
The bad news
While, as shown above, the side boosters for the Falcon Heavy landed successfully back at Cape Canaveral, the center core wasn’t so lucky. The Verge reported that only one of the engines fired back up, resulting in the rocket splashing down about 300 feet away (91 meters) from the autonomous drone ship at about 300 miles per hour (482 km/h).
The center core was only able to relight one of the three engines necessary to land, and so it hit the water at 300 miles per hour about 300 feet from the drone ship. As a result, two engines on the drone ship were taken out when it crashed, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a press call after the rocket launch. “[It] was enough to take out two thrusters and shower the deck with shrapnel,” he said.
But don’t let this get you down. The center core was unlikely to be used again anyway, as it was a series 3 rocket and SpaceX is already making series 5 rockets.
The interesting news
Once in orbit around Earth, Starman was subjected to being blasted by radiation for five hours while inside the Van Allen Belt.
The Van Allen Belt is basically an area around Earth where charged particles, mostly from solar wind, are caught by Earth’s magnetic field (read more).
After five hours of being blasted, SpaceX fired up the single Merlin engine to propel Starman to his eternal home: a Mars orbit. There were a lot of things that could go wrong at this point, such as not having enough fuel or even the RP-1 kerosene fuel itself freezing in the depths of space, which is a crisp 2.7 Kelvin (-270.45 Celsius, -454.81 Fahrenheit). Fortunately, the third and final burn of the Merlin 1D engine was successful. A bit… too successful though!
Instead of reaching out to just a Mars orbit, the Falcon Heavy “exceeded” this orbit and will be reaching out as far as the Asteroid Belt. While it may sound scary, don’t worry – the Asteroid Belt is not nearly as densely packed as movies would lead you to believe, and an impact from an asteroid is highly unlikely.
It’s also important to note that the goal was never an orbit around Mars itself. The goal always was to have a heliocentric orbit (sun-centered) that extended out to briefly align with the orbit of Mars. In order to have a planetary orbit around Mars, more fuel would be necessary to retrofire and slow down so that Mars’ gravity could grab Starman and keep him there.
So instead of having encounters that would take Starman rather close to Mars, with a small chance of an actual impact, over the next billion years or so, it seems that Starman will only remain in orbit around the sun for the next 10,000 years. Starman will get tugged on by Jupiter, slowly elongating its orbit, and eventually Jupiter will eject it from the Solar System.
But for the time being, if you want to know when Starman will be above you next, well, there’s an app for it:
Hats off to Elon Musk, SpaceX, the SpaceX social media team for incredible videos, and all the scientists/employees behind this. The first private company to launch an interplanetary mission is a memory that I will hold onto forever, and hopefully SpaceX will continue to inspire a new generation of scientists and space enthusiasts to keep looking up!