The space company, SpaceX, is set to usher in a new era of space travel later today when it finally launches the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy is noteworthy because it was designed to be able to reach the Moon and Mars, making those types of missions much more likely, whereas the current Falcon 9 is designed for low Earth orbit (LEO) missions.
The Falcon Heavy, if it doesn’t fail on the way, will put a Tesla Roadster into a heliocentric orbit as far out as Mars, piloted by a dummy, affectionately called Starman, in the SpaceX spacesuit. Regarding the launch, Elon Musk said:
“Falcon Heavy launches to Mars orbit [today]. If it doesn’t explode into tiny pieces, it will carry Starman in Roadster over 400 million km from Earth at 11 km/sec on a billion year journey through space.
Should it work, Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world by a factor of two and highest payload launch vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket. Could do crewed missions to the moon and Mars with orbital refilling, but better to leave that to the BFR program.”
The Falcon Heavy uses three first-stage boosters; for this mission, the two on the side separate and will make their trip back to Earth first, landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, while the centre core detaches itself later and lands on a SpaceX drone ship at sea. The upper stage and the payload eventually separate and the latter heads off to get into a heliocentric orbit.
The massive rocket is slated to launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 13:30 EST (18:30 UTC) and so far the weather looks as though it will hold out for the launch to go ahead. Should any postponement occur, a second attempt is slated for Wednesday.
The first manned mission of the Falcon Heavy is due to take place in 2019, when it will carry a crewed Dragon 2 capsule with two private citizens into a free-return trajectory around the Moon.
Update: The launch has been delayed due to strong winds in upper atmosphere.
Update #2: The livestream is now online.
Update #3: The launch as well as the landing of the first two boosters was a success. The status of the core booster remains unknown at the moment, but SpaceX is streaming a live view from the Tesla Roadster: