The Falcon Heavy is a large cargo-lifting rocket developed by private spaceflight company SpaceX. When it launched on its maiden voyage on Feb. 6, 2018, the rocket was the most powerful booster in operation at that time. (The Saturn V, which launched the Apollo moon missions, was the most powerful ever.)
On that debut test flight, the Falcon Heavy met almost all of its major objectives, including (notably) flying company founder and CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, carrying a mannequin named “Starman,” to space.
More flights are planned for later in 2018 as the company begins to seek out more customers for the Falcon Heavy. Eventually, perhaps by 2020, Musk plans to use the experience in developing the Falcon Heavy to make an even bigger rocket, named the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), for Mars exploration.
Brief development history
SpaceX was founded in 2002, backed by Musk, who previously co-created and sold the companies Zip2 and PayPal. After successfully developing and flying the Falcon 1 rocket, SpaceX received funding from NASA to develop a spacecraft — the Dragon capsule — that, in 2012, became the first commercial (nongovernment) spacecraft to bring cargo to the International Space Station. To get to space, the Dragon required a heavier-lift rocket called the Falcon 9, which SpaceX developed and then first flew in 2010.
Musk first announced a bigger rocket — the Falcon Heavy — in 2011. At the time, he said the rocket would carry 117,000 lbs. (53,000 kilograms) of cargo to orbit — twice the capacity of the space shuttle. Musk also predicted the first Falcon Heavy flight would come in 2013.
As is common in spaceflight, however, that date was pushed back several years during development. There were two catastrophic failures of the Falcon 9 rocket, in 2015 and 2016. Flights were suspended both times while the cause of the failures was investigated, and that likely contributed to pushing back the timeline of the Falcon Heavy.
SpaceX completed a static-fire test of the Falcon Heavy center core in May 2017. By September of that year, all three boosters planned for the first flight completed static testing.
According to SpaceX’s website, the Falcon Heavy is 230 feet tall (70 meters) and can lift nearly 141,000 lbs. (64 metric tons) of payload to low Earth orbit — about twice the payload capacity of its closest competitor, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy.
The rocket has two stages. The first stage has three engine cores. The center core is flanked and supported by two boosters. Each core is equivalent to the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket and houses nine engines. The boosters separate after liftoff and land upright back on Earth, possibly to be used again. Meanwhile, the heavier center core aims for a drone ship, carrying its payload in the second stage.
The 27 engines on the first stage of Falcon Heavy, working together, are capable of more than 5 million pounds force (22,819 kilonewtons) of thrust at liftoff — the same force as about 18 747 aircraft at full power.
The Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off for the first time on Feb. 6, 2018, from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida, using Launch Complex 39A, the pad that used to host moon-bound Apollo astronauts and space shuttle crews. An estimated 100,000 spectators crowded the area’s beaches and roadways to watch the rocket launch. Millions more watched a livestream showing the launch and events afterward.
During the launch, two boosters separated from the Falcon Heavy and landed at SpaceX landing sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station near KSC. The core stage was supposed to touch down on a drone ship dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You,” but instead, it hit the Atlantic Ocean at 300 mph (480 km/h). The livestream continued for more than 4 hours after launch, showing the rocket’s payload: a red Tesla Roadster and a spacesuited mannequin called “Starman.” The Falcon Heavy then fired its engines to put it in an orbit around the sun that could extend past Mars. (The car itself might rip apart due to radiation in a year, Space.com sister site Live Science reported.)
Read at more: space.com