SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch: Everything you need to know about Elon Musk's Tesla-carrying rocket
If all goes smoothly, the largest and most powerful rocket currently in use will blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 6. Built by Elon Musk's company SpaceX, the rocket is called Falcon Heavy and has the potential to become a game-changer for both unmanned and manned missions to Space, the Moon and beyond.
What is the Falcon Heavy?
Falcon Heavy is the largest rocket produced by SpaceX. The one scheduled to launch on February 6 is the first of its kind, making this a test mission rather than the delivery of anything important — like a satellite, or supplies for the International Space Station. As such, the Heavy's payload is rather unusual, as we will get to further down.
SpaceX's other rocket is called Falcon 9 due to it being powered by nine Falcon rockets. Falcon Heavy is essentially made from three Falcon 9s, meaning it has 27 rockets - more than any ever fitted to a functioning space rocket.
Falcon Heavy is designed to produce over 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, enough to take 140,000 pounds of cargo into lower Earth orbit. For comparison, the Saturn V rocket which took Apollo 11 to the Moon in 1969, and was retired in 1973, produced 7.9 million pounds of thrust.
As well as being very powerful, Falcon Heavy is designed to be far cheaper than other rockets. SpaceX estimates each flight will cost $90 million, which is almost four times cheaper than the next most powerful rocket currently in production, Delta IV Heavy, which costs $350 million per launch.
A successful first flight for the Falcon Heavy could see Nasa use SpaceX for its future missions to the Moon, which were recently give the green light by the US government.
In the future, Musk wants to use a larger rocket (called BFR, or Big F****ing Rocket) to send humans to Mars and offer Earth-to-Earth rocket flights, taking passengers from London to New York in 29 minutes. Musk has also said he will use the Falcon Heavy to take two paying passengers on a trip around the Moon this year.
Where and when will it launch?
Falcon Heavy is scheduled to liftoff between 1:30 pm and 4 pm EST on February 6. There is currently an 80 percent chance that local weather will be favorable for the mission to go ahead, but this being the rocket's first ever launch, there could well be delays due to technical issues. An issue would likely see the launch delayed for a few days until a new launch window can be scheduled.
The launch will take place on pad 39A of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida — exactly where Apollo 11 blasted off in July 1969 to take man to the Moon for the first time. In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with Nasa to use pad 39A.
What is Falcon Heavy taking to space?
This is where things get interesting. The Falcon Heavy will be taking Musk's own Tesla Roadster to space — with a dummy dressed in a SpaceX suit behind the wheel. The dummy is nicknamed 'Starman' and David Bowie's Space Oddity will play on the stereo.
At first this was dismissed as another one of Musk's jokes, but he has since shared photos on Instagram of the red electric sports car waiting to be loaded into the rocket. There appear to be cameras pointing towards the front of the vehicle, and a model red Tesla sits on the dashboard.
Where will the Tesla go?
The Falcon Heavy's unusual payload will enter a Hohmann transfer orbit around the Sun. This path will see the payload reach the same distance from the Sun as Mars, but it will not get close to the Red Planet itself.
Will Falcon Heavy come back and be used again?
SpaceX is best known for producing rockets which can land and be used again. It has perfected the art of landing boosters with the Falcon 9 and will attempt the same trick with the Falcon Heavy. Instead of a single booster returning to Earth, three are designed to land after launch.
A pair will return to Cape Canaveral, while the Heavy's central core will land on an autonomous ship in the Atlantic. If successful, all three parts will be able to fly again; in fact, the two outer cores used to power Falcon Heavy have already flown before on previous Falcon 9 missions.
Will the launch be streamed online?
Yes, SpaceX will stream live video footage of the Falcon Heavy launch on its website and YouTube channel. Coverage will begin several minutes before takeoff and will likely continue until all three cores have returned to Earth.