For the first time ever, SpaceX did a static test fire of their Falcon Heavy rocket. Following the successful test, Elon Musk tweeted that the rocket could launch as early as next week!
The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket currently in operation, with the Saturn V being the only other rocket system that was more powerful.
But as New Atlas points out, the Falcon Heavy remains incredibly impressive:
[T]he Falcon Heavy can put a payload of 140,700 lb (63,800 kg) into low Earth orbit at an inclination of 28.5 degrees. It could also reach escape velocity to send 35,000 lb (16,000 kg) to the Moon.
Saturn V? Its low Earth orbit throw weight is over twice the Heavy’s at 310,000 lb (140,000 kg) with a 30° inclination. Getting to escape velocity, it can loft 107,100 lb (48,600 kg) into lunar orbit. That’s the equivalent of nine full grown elephants – without their spacesuits.
But according to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy will be able to take 37,000 pounds to Mars, where the first Falcon Heavy mission intends to go.
One of the best aspects about the Falcon Heavy is the cost, though.
The estimated cost of a Saturn V launch in today’s dollars is a whopping US$1.16 billion. Meanwhile, the upper estimate for Falcon heavy is US$90 million. That’s million with an “M.”
That means that for the price of one Saturn V launch, you could do (almost) thirteen Falcon Heavy launches.
I giggled a bit while browsing the SpaceX website. While I think there might be some subtle humor in play when SpaceX puts a link to “Falcon 9 pricing” (and the “Falcon 9 user guide“), it’s a peek into the future, too. There’s the very real potential that in 20 years, many private companies will have websites just like this, with offers for people like you and me who want to go into low Earth orbit for a few minutes (hopefully at a slightly more modest price).
We already said SpaceX had a successful static fire test of the Falcon Heavy yesterday – but why do they do that in the first place?
Tests like this are done to observe the rockets’ performance prior to launch. In the case of the Falcon Heavy, whose first stage is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets, there are 27 engines in total that must perform perfectly for the launch to be a success, and this was the first time all of the engines have been lit up simultaneously. During these tests, the rocket is restrained on the launchpad by big clamps to ensure it stays put. These (or similar) clamps are also used during actual rocket launches to hold the rocket in place, ensuring that all engines are powered and functioning correctly. The Saturn V was held down for six seconds by these arms prior to their release. Had the rockets all not powered up correctly, the arms wouldn’t release, and the rocket wouldn’t go anywhere.
The three minute slow-motion video below, showing the arms holding the Saturn V in place, is only ten seconds in real time.
(Here’s a great video about the Saturn V with commentary from astronauts who rode it, if you need more rocket porn.)
If the launch of a heavy transport system into space wasn’t enough to get you excited, Elon Musk is kicking things up a notch by including a special payload: his car.
Despite the successes of the Falcon 9, and the successful test yesterday, it’s not entirely clear what will happen with the Falcon Heavy. Even Musk isn’t totally sure, saying this at the International Space Station Research and Development conference in Washington, D.C. last year:
“I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”
Progress is usually incremental, and this will be a huge step for a private company to launch a mission to Mars like what SpaceX has planned. We’re rather used to SpaceX being successful now, but even SpaceX had their own growing pains in the past. This would undoubtedly be an amazing “proof of concept” launch if it is able to make it into low Earth orbit. Anything further is just gravy, in my opinion.
(… And if you read this far, I can only assume that you want even more rocket porn, so here’s a video I found of nearly every SpaceX landing attempt, in order. Enjoy!)