Wednesday, February 7, 2018

SpaceX Does It for the First Time Again: Falcon Heavy Sends a Tesla to Deep Space

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket takes to the skies for the first time. The Feb. 6, 2018, launch carried SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space with a dummy in a spacesuit. Photo Credit: Vikash Mahadeo / SpaceFlight Insider

It isn’t often a test flight goes almost flawlessly—what space people quietly call “nominal.” Yet, SpaceX made history again on Feb. 6, 2018, after successfully launching its super heavy-lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, for the very first time.

The launcher, which is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two, placed a very special payload into space—SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s midnight cherry red Tesla Roadster with a “Starman” mannequin outfitted a qualification model of the company’s spacesuit design. The car is bound for an Earth-Mars heliocentric orbit. Rather than lofting mass simulators on a risky maiden flight, the company opted for the “silliest” thing they could imagine.

In addition to this accomplishment, the company managed to land two of the three boosters back on Earth at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station—raising the bar for “normal operations” in space.

Despite sunny skies and few clouds, the launch was delayed due to upper-level wind shear. The liftoff time was moved several times from 1:30 p.m. EST (18:30 GMT) to 2:20 p.m., then 2:50 p.m., 3:05 p.m., and 3:15 p.m., before finally settling on a 3:45 p.m. liftoff.

Seconds after clearing the tower, the Falcon Heavy began a pitch-and-roll maneuver. On 27 bright yellow-white flames produced by the equivalent number of Merlin 1D engines, the vehicle began to arc over the Atlantic into a clear and sunny sky. The vehicle pressed through Mach 1 about 1 minute, 7 seconds into the flight and passed maximum dynamic pressure at 1 minute, 23 seconds.

The two strap-on Falcon 9-based side cores reached their main engine cutoff point at 2 minutes, 27 seconds into the flight before jettisoning. Each began a series of controlled burns to return to Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) and the newly completed LZ-2.

In what had to be one of the more unusual sights seen at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the area saw two boosters return to land in formation some eight minutes after liftoff, each centered on its own landing pad.

The two side core boosters returned to Landing Zone 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Photo Credit: Sean Costello / SpaceFlight Insider
The two side core boosters returned to Landing Zone 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Photo Credit: Sean Costello / SpaceFlight Insider

Meanwhile, up in the skies, the center core burned for another 35 seconds after the side cores left before jettisoning and beginning its controlled reentry toward SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You. At a post-launch press conference Musk said the center core’s three-engine landing burn did not go as planned. Only the center engine ignited, meaning the stage did not slow down fast enough and slammed into the Ocean at around 300 mph (480 kph).

With the center core jettisoned just over three minutes into the flight, that left the single vacuum-rated Merlin engine on the upper stage to power the Tesla Roadster onto its interplanetary voyage. The upper-stage engine burned until about 8.5 minutes before entering a 20-minute coast phase. A 30-second upper-stage burn was planned for 28 minutes, 22 seconds into the flight, which raised the high point of the Tesla’s orbit to about 4,350 miles (7,000 kilometers).

A third burn some six hours after liftoff will put the vehicle on a sun-centric orbit that will cycle between the orbits of Earth and Mars. The car’s distance from the Sun means it will maintain its orbit (barring any other interference) for a billion years before decaying, according to Musk.

When the fairing jettisoned almost four minutes into the ascent, the Tesla displayed the words “DON’T PANIC” in large, friendly letters on the dashboard computer, an homage to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Meanwhile, the onboard cameras showed the “Starman” in the driver’s seat flying over Earth as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” played in the background.

The Roadster was more of gimmick dummy payload, weighing in at a mere 2,900 pounds (1,300 kilograms). However, once in service, Falcon Heavy will be capable of lofting payloads as heavy as 119,000 pounds (54,000 kilograms) to low-Earth orbit (LEO), giving it capabilities that nearly double that of the closest commercial competitor, Delta IV Heavy, which can lift 62,545 pounds (28,370 kilograms) to LEO.

A view of Starman inside the Tesla Roaster with Earth falling away in the background. Photo Credit: SpaceX Webcast
A view of Starman inside the Tesla Roaster with Earth falling away in the background. Photo Credit: SpaceX Webcast

While SpaceX employees cheered over the live feed from Hawthorne, California, John Insprucker, SpaceX’s principal integration engineer, said the mission provided “everything you could want for a test flight.”

SpaceX’s own news feed noted that “Falcon Heavy draws upon the proven heritage and reliability of Falcon 9. Its first stage is composed of three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft. Only the Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, delivered more payload to orbit. Falcon Heavy was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars.”

Buzz Aldrin, whose mission lifted off from Launch Complex 39A in 1969, sent his regards: “It’s a beautiful day for a rocket launch from my favorite launchpad.”

Amazon.com founder and SpaceX rival CEO of Blue Origin Jeff Bezos wished the flight well: Best of luck @SpaceX with the Falcon Heavy launch tomorrow – hoping for a beautiful, nominal flight!

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, in response to a Twitter follower who asked, “Would you do another space flight with a SpaceX Rocket?” answered simply, “Yes.”

Andrew Gasser, President of the Tea Party in Space, told Spaceflight Insider: “This is a game changer that proves the limited government, public-private partnership using the American free market system really works. February 6th, 2018 is a day where everyone who is in the space industry will remember where they were when they witnessed Falcon Heavy opening up the infinite economy to all of us.”

Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society said: “Today SpaceX achieved a spectacular and historic success. Seven years ago, the Augustine commission said that NASA’s Moon program had to be cancelled because the development of the necessary heavy lift booster would take 12 years and 36 billion dollars. SpaceX has now done that, on its own dime, in half the time and a twentieth of the cost. And not only that, but the launch vehicle is three quarters reusable. This is a revolution. The naysayers have been completely refuted. The Moon is now within reach. Mars is now within reach. The moment is at hand to open the space frontier. America should seize the time.”

Having proven itself on its first flight, the next question becomes: who will Falcon Heavy’s customers be in the marketplace? While Musk has talked in depth about making humanity a multi-planet species, are there any actual customers for the rocket today?

In fact, there are. SpaceX currently has five customers on its launch manifest for Falcon Heavy, including Arabsat 6A, Inmarsat, the U.S. Air Force STP-2, and Viasat.

Presumably the Department of Defense and some of the larger satellite producers like Intelsat might have use for very large launchers. And with the Space Launch System still nearly 2.5 years away from its first launch, scientists looking to send payloads to the outer solar system might now have a quicker option.

Of course Musk has said he wants to replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy with his Interplanetary Transport System (also called the “BFR”). However, that might be getting a little ahead of the game, given the size of the BFR. SpaceX also needs to do further testing on the Raptor engine, which will be able to produce 683,433 pounds (3,040 kilonewtons) of thrust with a single engine.

Written by: Bart Leahy
Original source: spaceflightinsider.com

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