SpaceX Falcon Heavy: Elon Musk’s heavy-duty rocket ready for launch

SpaceX’s colossal Falcon Heavy rocket will leave the Earth later today, carrying one of Elon Musk’s own sports cars into orbit. 

SpaceX Falcon Heavy: Elon Musk’s heavy-duty rocket ready for launch

The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket to be launched in a generation, representing a major push by the private space company to advance long-range space travel.

Tuesday’s unmanned launch will carry a cherry-red Tesla roadster payload into an elliptical orbit that encompasses Mars’ orbit around the Sun. “[The roadster will] get about 400 million kilometres away from Earth, and it’ll be doing 11km/sec,” Musk told reporters on Monday. “We estimate it will be in that orbit for several hundred million years, maybe in excess of a billion years.”

The launch is slated to happen during a three-hour window beginning at 13:30 EST (18:30 GMT) today, although it could be pushed back to Wednesday if any technical glitches are detected. The billionaire entrepreneur has indeed acknowledged that there’s “a real good chance” the Falcon Heavy will fail.  

The spacecraft essentially consists of three Falcon 9 rockets and, like those pioneering boosters, is designed to be reusable after launch

When the Falcon Heavy launches, the first stage will be led by the rocket’s two side boosters, each of which is equivalent to a Falcon 9. Once these separate, it will be up to the Falcon Heavy’s central booster to carry the payload. SpaceX intends to recover the stage-one rocket boosters by landing them after launch. It’s all pretty ambitious, especially as the combined force of three rockets means that it should be capable of launching 63,800kg into low Earth orbit. If the Falcon Heavy ventures further afield, it will be able to carry less:

  • 63,800kg to low Earth orbit
  • 26,700kg to geosynchronous transfer orbit
  • 16,800kg to Mars
  • 3,500kg to Pluto

While these figures are certainly impressive, the Falcon Heavy is a way off being the most powerful rocket ever launched. That honour, impressively, still belongs to the Saturn V from the Apollo missions to the moon, which was retired in 1973. The Falcon Heavy is also behind a couple of Soviet Union rockets, but ahead of the recently cancelled European Ariane 5ME, as this chart shows:

VehicleCountryMass to LEO (kg)Dates operational
Saturn VUSA118,000 1967-1973 
EnergiaSoviet Union 100,0001987-1988 
N1 Soviet Union 95,000 1969-1972 
Falcon HeavyUSA 63,800 TBA
Energia-Buran Soviet Union30,000 1988-1988
Delta IV Heavy USA 28,790 2004-present
Ariane 5ME Europe 25,200 Canceled
Space Shuttle USA 24,400 1981-2011 
Titan IVB USA 21,682 1997-2005
Proton-M Russia 21,600 1999-present 
Ariane 5ECA Europe 21,000 2002-present 

Respectable positioning for the Falcon Heavy there – especially as the N1 never reached orbit. And, crucially, it looks like SpaceX will go straight in as the most powerful operational rocket.spacex_launch

Hold your horses. Let’s see that table again, only this time looking at rockets that are currently in development:

VehicleCountryMass to LEO (kg)Expected
Space Launch SystemUSA 130,700 2019
Long March 9China 130,000 TBA 
Falcon HeavyUSA63,800 2018

If the Falcon Heavy successfully launches, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world – but it won’t be holding onto the crown for long. Now that’s not necessarily a problem – there are different rockets for different purposes – it’s just worth remembering that, just like other areas of technology, there’s always something more powerful around the corner.

In any case, the Falcon Heavy is coming… as long as the launch goes according to plan.

Images: SpaceX

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