According to The Planetary Society, SpaceX is planning to launch Falcon Heavy for the second or third time as early as April 30th, 2018.
This information was given directly to The Planetary Society by “Air Force officials”, and the timeliness suggests that it is relatively recent. This bodes well for what has been an anticipated launch date of Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch, which has been described several times by SpaceX executives as likely to occur by the end of 2017.
Musk made headlines by strongly cautioning audience members at his recent ISS R&D Conference in Washington D.C. that there was “a real possibility” that Falcon Heavy would fail at some point during its first launch. He made this resoundingly clear with a statement that he would personally consider the mission a success if it doesn’t destroy the pad it launches from at Cape Canaveral, LC-39A, and by deeming the first humans choosing to fly aboard the vehicle as “brave”.
The Planetary Society has been working closely with the United States Air Force for at least several years to coordinate the launch of their payload, LightSail-2, aboard a Falcon Heavy. The experiment is part of the Air Force’s second Space Test Program (STP-2) mission, and will launch with as many as 19 other satellites weighing well over 6,500 kilograms.
LightSail-2 is itself extremely interesting, and will mark The Planetary Society’s second privately-funded orbital attempt to test the “light sail” concept. Light sails are based upon the fact that photons from the Sun are able to exert a small amount of force when they interact with other materials. An imperfect but accurate analogy can be found with an umbrella held on a windy day, with the ubrella’s surface area collecting energy from the wind and dragging your hand about. With a large enough ‘photon umbrella’, or solar sail, a payload can be gradually accelerated to extremely high speeds, or can more realistically move itself about in space with nearly no classical propellant.
As Musk himself has taken a liking to saying, the first launches of Falcon Heavy will be major spectacles in one way or another. Here’s to hoping that they are nominal and LightSail-2 is able to keep its launch date.