SpaceX fires a car to Mars on world’s most powerful rocket

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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy megarocket has finally blasted off from the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, carrying Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster on a journey to Mars.   

After pushing back the launch time twice today due to wind speeds, the massive rocket launched at 3:45 p.m. ET, just before the launch window was set to close.

‘You’ve heard the call out – vehicle is supersonic’ the announcer said, as the rocket soared through the sky to massive cheers from the crowd below.  

Today’s successful launch marked the maiden flight of what’s now the most powerful operational rocket in the world.

Just over three minutes into the launch, the side boosters detached from the rocket and launch operators confirmed it was on the right trajectory.

In another incredible accomplishment, the Falcon Heavy’s side boosters touched smoothly back down to Earth on two separate landing pads about 8 minutes in, after surviving the re-entry burns.

‘The Falcons have landed’ the announcers said, as onlookers cheered and whooped wildly in the background. 

As planned, the 230-foot-long rocket’s central core then detached from the main module to begin its controlled descent back to Earth. 

At first, it remained unclear if it safely landed down on the firm’s ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone ship in the Pacific Ocean, as the cameras tracking its journey cut out.

But, SpaceX has since confirmed it lost the enormous middle booster.     

‘Meanwhile, the second stage is continuing its trajectory towards Mars,’ the SpaceX team said during the webcast. ‘It was an outstanding test flight of the Falcon Heavy.’  

‘Everything that you could want in a test flight – we got here,’ the team said.   

The journey to Mars orbit will take about six months, with the module and the attached Roadster traversing roughly 140 million miles (225 million kilometres).    

Now that the rocket and its payload have successfully made it through the ascent – a critical stage in which Musk himself has admitted it risked blowing up – the SpaceX boss says the sports car ‘will be in deep space for a billion years.’

A view inside the Roadster after today’s launch showed one last look at the dummy, dubbed Starman, behind the wheel on its journey to Mars.

Displayed on the dashboard screen, the firm has written comically: Don’t Panic.

And, David Bowie’s 1971 Life on Mars could be heard playing in the background of the live webcast.

Now, the cherry red car attached to the rocket’s main module is on its way to Earth-Mars orbit.

‘Upper stage restart nominal, apogee raised to 7000km,’ Musk tweeted shortly after the launch, confirming its success.

‘Will spend 5 hours getting zapped in Van Allen belts & then attempt final burn for Mars.’

The SpaceX CEO also shared an update on Starman’s journey beyond Earth.

‘View from SpaceX Launch Control. Apparently, there is a car in orbit around Earth,’ Musk quipped. 

After five years of setbacks, the massive rocket capable of achieving a thrust equivalent to more than 18 Boeing 747 jetliners finally took its maiden flight today. 

Ahead of the launch, Musk released a stunning animation revealing how the plan would work. The billionaire SpaceX CEO said the firm’s Falcon Heavy spacecraft would carry his Roadster on a billion-year journey through space ‘if it doesn’t explode into tiny pieces’.

A video posted to Musk’s Instagram account showed how the huge rocket would lift off from Florida in its first ever test flight. It showed how the craft’s three reusable cores would separate from the main module containing Musk’s car after launch and return to Earth.

Once beyond Earth’s orbit, the main module was then due to break apart, leaving the roadster and its passenger, a mannequin Musk has named ‘Starman’, to travel alone on a 250 million mile (400m km) journey into deep space.

Musk assured that cameras on the vehicle would provide ‘epic views’ as it travels to Mars.

Most new rockets carry concrete or steel blocks on test flights to simulate the weight of a real payload, but Musk, who is also CEO of Tesla, has previously said that this method is ‘extremely boring’, adding that SpaceX decided to send Musk’s car as it was ‘something unusual, something that made us feel.’ 

SpaceX has spent weeks preparing for the first test launch of its Falcon Heavy, with the aim of it becoming the world’s most powerful rocket in operation, with the capacity to one day take payloads to the moon or Mars.

It has been hailed by industry experts as a game-changer because of its potential to propel the California-based company to the very forefront of the modern day space race.

‘Nasa may decide to use [the Falcon Heavy]as a way of fast-tracking its plans to get to the Moon and Mars,’ Dr Erik Seedhouse, assistant professor of applied aviation sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told AFP.

Ahead of the launch, Jason Davis of the Planetary Society, described the Falcon Heavy as ‘mythical’, adding the launch was a ‘huge deal, even for a spaceflight company that routinely accomplishes huge deals’.

But the launch was high-risk with Musk admitted beforehand that there was a ‘real good chance that the vehicle does not make it.’ 

In a post to Instagram on Monday morning, the billionaire shared a picture of his electric sports car strapped into the rocket, with a mannequin wearing a spacesuit sat in the driver’s seat.  

While the Falcon Heavy won’t surpass NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket, still all-time king of the launch circuit. It won’t even approach the liftoff might of NASA’s space shuttles. But when it departed on its first test flight, the Heavy with its two boosters and 27 engines still became the most powerful working rocket out there today, by a factor of two.

‘I can’t wait to see it fly and to see it fly again and again,’ said the Southwest Research Institute’s Alan Stern, ahead of the launch. He’s the lead scientist for Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft which made an unprecedented flyby of Pluto and is now headed to an even smaller, icy world on the fringes of the solar system.

Cape Canaveral hasn’t seen this kind of rocket mania since the last space shuttle flight in 2011.  

The Heavy is capable of delivering, in one fell swoop, 140,660 pounds (63,800 kilograms) of cargo to low-Earth orbit, nearly 60,000 pounds (26,700 kilograms) to high-Earth orbit, 37,000 pounds (16,800 kilograms) to Mars, or 7,700 pounds (3,500 kilograms) to Pluto. 

Today’s test marked the first time SpaceX has flown its new, high-capacity rocket, which will allow the firm to send far higher payloads into orbit than the average launch.

It followed months of delays and setbacks, with the company targeting an unprecedented level of reusability as part of its long-term plan to make commercial rocket flights cheaper.

SpaceX had previously said it planned to launch the Falcon Heavy a week after the rocket’s first successful static test fire, which took place on January 24 after it was delayed by last month’s US government shutdown. 

The January test marked the first time the huge rocket roared to life, with all 27 of its Merlin engines fired up simultaneously at launchpad 39A. As well as creating huge, billowing clouds of white smoke, the test fired off monstrous booms that could be heard up to three miles away.

‘Falcon Heavy hold-down firing this morning was good. Generated quite a thunderhead of steam. Launching in a week or so,’ Musk tweeted on January 24.

On January 5, the billionaire wrote on Instagram: ‘Falcon Heavy now vertical on the former Apollo 11 moon rocket launchpad. At 2,500 tons of thrust, equal to 18 Boeing 747 aircraft at full throttle, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world by a factor of two. Excitement on launch day guaranteed, one way or another.

‘Hold-down test fire next week. Launch end of the month.’  

The 46-year-old South African, who co-founded PayPal with venture capitalist Peter Thiel, predicts the Falcon Heavy’s payload will stay in deep space for a while.

The mission marks SpaceX’s most ambitious project to date. 

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, with the aim of reducing space transportation costs and enabling the colonization of Mars.

In a Washington, D.C., speech last July the Tesla founder said Falcon Heavy is one of the most difficult and technically complex projects SpaceX has ever undertaken.

‘There’s a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy,’ he said during the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development Conference. ‘Real good chance that the vehicle doesn’t make it to orbit. I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly.’ 

Musk has spent the preceeding months building up hype for the historic launch with a series of social media posts.

Last month he posted an image to Twitter of people stood next to a landed Falcon Heavy rocket to give an idea of the vehicle’s scale.

He tweeted: ‘Falcon Heavy launching from same @NASA pad as the Saturn V Apollo 11 moon rocket. 

‘It was 50% higher thrust with five F-1 engines at 7.5M lb-F. 

‘I love that rocket so much.’

He also confirmed the rocket will have a ‘max thrust at lift-off is 5.1 million pounds or 2300 metric tons,’ adding the first mission will run at 92 per cent capacity.

‘Falcon Heavy to launch next month from Apollo 11 pad at the Cape. 

‘Will have double thrust of next largest rocket. Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another,’ Musk originally posted.

 

 

 

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