SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell announces that the first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX’s claim to the world’s most powerful and largest operational rocket, may take place in November of this year. Its success would mark a major shift in commercial spaceflight as Falcon Heavy would become the first reusable and therefore cheapest heavy-lift rocket available for contract.
The Falcon Heavy is essentially three of its proven Falcon 9 rockets strapped together into one unit. Together, the twenty seven Merlin engine will generate about 4,000,000 pounds of thrust — enough to put a 116,845 lb payload into orbit.
The Falcon 9 alone can only lift a 28,991 lbs payload into low earth orbit, according to Space Flight Insider. The recent SES 9 satellite weighed just over 12,000 lbs, but it represented more of a challenge because it is supposed to go into orbit about 24,000 mile above the earth. Low earth orbit missions like those used to resupply the International Space Station only need to rise about 300 miles above the earth.
About 90 seconds into the flight, the two auxiliary rockets will separate from the central rocket. Then both will attempt to navigate their way back to earth. Shortly thereafter, the second stage rocket will take over and the center Falcon 9 will also attempt to return to earth. If retrieving one rocket is difficult, bringing three back home at more or less the same time will be a Herculean task.
When the Falcon Heavy flies for the first time, it will use the historic Launch Area 39A, the place where Apollo 11 began its historic journey in 1969. The launch site has been substantially upgraded by SpaceX for the Falcon Heavy missions, including a system that floods the launch pad with water. Modern rockets burn hot enough to melt concrete if it is not kept cool.
SpaceX has created a video showing what a Falcon Heavy launch will look like. Although it was released some time ago, it is still an accurate portrayal of what SpaceX hopes to achieve with its first Falcon Heavy mission.
Photo credit: SpaceX