4 cool things to know about SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy test flight

6 Feb 2018

The Falcon Heavy launch vehicle prepares for a demo mission in December 2017. Image: SpaceX

SpaceX is about to make history with the first flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket, potentially ushering in a new age of space travel.

Elon Musk and everyone at SpaceX is bound to be both nervous and incredibly excited for what could be the biggest moment in its history, with the first test of its Falcon Heavy rocket, the launch vehicle it is expecting to bank its future – and the future of space travel – on.

After years of design and testing, recently culminating in the test of its rocket boosters, the Falcon Heavy will take off from NASA’s historic Launch Pad 39A some time between 6.30pm and 9pm IST today (6 February), in its first ever test flight.

While many of SpaceX’s previous achievements have been heralded as major breakthroughs – such as the first safe landing of its Falcon 9 rocket, now being used to transport small payloads into orbit at a much cheaper cost – the Falcon Heavy promises to do a lot more with a payload of 63,000kg.

SpaceX is planning to live-stream the event on YouTube for anyone looking to witness some space history.

But, beyond the simple fact that this is an important launch for the company and the private space sector, there are four more elements that are arguably important in their own right.

A Tesla Roadster will be launched into space

Remember the Tesla Roadster? Long before Elon Musk’s electric vehicle (EV) company was selling large numbers of its S and X models, the Roadster was being produced in the early 2000s as something of an experiment on the fledgling mass EV market.

Now, Musk has decided that firing a rocket into orbit with no payload on board is a waste of time, so he will instead send a red Roadster model, making it the first car to go outside Earth’s orbit.

All going according to plan, the car will be fired into an orbit around the sun known as the Hohmann transfer orbit, putting it at the same distance between the star and Mars.

Given the implications of firing such a thing into space, SpaceX has confirmed that it has taken all the necessary precautions to make sure the Roadster doesn’t, say, crash on Mars, resulting in its ecosystem becoming contaminated with Earthy microbes.

This is despite the fact that Musk had originally planned on putting the car into the orbit of Mars.

A ‘passenger’ will be on board

When the car launches into space, sitting in the driving seat for its cosmic journey will be a manikin – nicknamed ‘Starman’ – wearing SpaceX’s next-generation spacesuit.

Debuted in August of last year, the suit looks similar to ones seen in the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey and has been designed for the Falcon Heavy’s Crew Dragon capsule, which will launch humans into orbit and possibly beyond.

The suit is designed to keep the crew alive in the event of a massive depressurisation and sudden loss of oxygen, which can easily happen during the rigours of a space launch.

Although, in this instance, the lifeless manikin will do just fine without any backup oxygen.

Triple landing in play

The SpaceX engineering team has an almighty task at hand with the Falcon Heavy launch, with confirmation that it will attempt another major first: a triple rocket landing.

The launch vehicle will consist of three Falcon 9 rockets, all of which separately can achieve a safe landing back on Earth, but attempting three in a short space of time is completely unknown.

The company said that the two side cores of the boosters will return to Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, while the third and final booster will land on the Of Course I Still Love You floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.

The successful return of all three will bring the total number of returned Falcon 9 rockets to 24, and they could potentially join the six of those rockets that have been reused.

The implications could be enormous

If all goes according to plan and we see the Falcon Heavy successfully deliver the Tesla Roadster to orbit, the door is opened to SpaceX’s dream of one day sending hundreds of humans to Mars to establish colonies there.

While NASA has diverted its attention away from the Red Planet in favour of the closer – and potentially more lucrative – moon, Musk still has loftier ambitions.

What is learned during these early years of the Falcon Heavy’s launches into orbit could help the company one day build its BFR craft, envisioned as the ship that could travel to Mars.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that each of the Falcon Heavy’s launches costs a fraction of what its competitors are offering, at $90m versus the United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 Heavy, costing around $350m.

This fact has already seen a number of companies sign up to launch their satellites on board the rocket, including the Planetary Society’s experimental spacecraft, LightSail.

Somewhat similar to the Breakthrough Starshot satellite concept, the LightSail would use the sun’s radiation to power a solar sail through space.

This and other large satellites could begin launching into space with greater ease, given the cheaper cost.

It is now just a matter of seeing if SpaceX can pull it off and contribute to a piece of space history.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic