SpaceX, the most successful space company in the world, is just a few steps away from launching the most powerful operational rocket in the world, the impressive Falcon Heavy. After a successful starting test in May, SpaceX fired Falcon Heavy’s three first stage cores at the company’s facility in McGregor, Texas. The test in the wee hours of Sep. 2 was deemed as a sounding success ahead of the rocket’s first launch scheduled for November.
The Falcon Heavy is essentially made up of three Falcon 9s strapped together, which allows it to ferry roughly three times as more payload into space. Its design was first unveiled in 2011 but a series of setbacks have delayed the launch.
It’s capable of delivering 54 metric tons (119,000 lb) of payload (satellites, cargo, astronauts etc.) into Earth’s low orbit but also beyond that, to the moon or even Mars. That’s a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel.
“Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost. 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,” according to a SpaceX press release.
During the May static test, SpaceX fired one of Falcon Heavy’s cores. Now, with this most recent test, all three cores performed well. And like in the case of the Falcon 9, all three cores will be reusable, safely touching down on a pad on Earth where they’ll be readied for a new launch.
Once the Falcon Heavy finally enters in operation, the ‘most powerful rocket’ crown might not last long. That distinction will soon enough belong to NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System. It will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions even farther into our solar system.
In any event, 2017 is shaping up as SpaceX’s best year yet. After a dramatic setback exactly one year ago when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded in Florida during a seemingly routine static fire test, destroying a client’s expensive satellite in the process, SpaceX has doubled up. It made 12 launches so far with eight more scheduled before the year ends. That’s more than any other company or country for that matter. So far, Russia only made 11 launches and its space agency is right to be afraid of such fierce competition.
The real kicker is that SpaceX made no fewer than 15 first-stage controlled landings, most of which occurred in the last seven months. The goal is for all SpaceX rockets, the Falcon Heavy not excluded, to be fully reusable which might cut launch costs a hundred fold.
In other words, progress is fast and impressive. We can only begin to imagine what marvelous things SpaceX will achieve in the next five to ten years.
UPDATE: The initial draft referred to the Falcon Heavy as the ‘most powerful rocket in the world’. This may be confusing to some people seeing how Saturn V is the ‘most powerful rocket in history’ and NASA’s upcoming SLS will have much more thrust, though its maiden launch is unclear at this point due to budget constraints. The Falcon Heavy will be the world’s most powerful operational rocket.