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OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's Up In Space - a weekly look at the biggest news coming down to Earth from space

SpaceX launches most powerful rocket on Earth. Watch here


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 4:39 PM - Did you see SpaceX launch their very first Falcon Heavy rocket into space?! Yes, or no, watch it (again) right from here!

Update: The primary core of the Falcon Heavy did NOT succeed in landing. Details below.

On Tuesday, February 6, the most powerful rocket to launch in over 45 years blasted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Launching from pad 39A, SpaceX's new Falcon Heavy made its first test flight, which put Elon Musk's own personal Tesla Roadster into space, on a trajectory that will put it into an orbit to Mars. Sitting in the driver seat of the car? A dummy nicknamed "Starman", wearing one of SpaceX's new space suits.

The launch time, originally scheduled for 1:30 p.m. ET, was delayed to 3:45 p.m. ET, due to strong upper level wind shear. This update followed several delays, all as SpaceX evaluated the wind conditions and watched their clock management.

Rewatch this amazing launch and landing, below, as many times as you want!



Musk posted the follow animation of the launch, landing and payload, on Twitter early on Monday.



If Musk's car wasn't the payload for this flight, the rocket likely would be carrying a large chunk of concrete or metal, since test flights simply carry something the size and weight of a satellite, rather than risking something that cost billions of dollars to make.

Musk said, in an Instagram post back on December 22: "Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel. The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing [David Bowie's] Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit."

This "billion year elliptic Mars orbit" that Musk mentioned is known as a Hohmann Transfer Orbit, and it is frequently used to launch robotic missions to Mars, because it is the easiest way to do it. The rocket takes advantage of Earth's momentum, and the specific positions of Earth and Mars in their orbits around the Sun, to have the payload arrive roughly six months after launch. However, the timing is very specific, and currently, the "window" for getting a mission to Mars doesn't open for another two months or so. Launching now will put the rocket into an elliptical orbit around the Sun, which will reach out as far as Mars' orbit, but it will miss Mars this time. Going forward, it may be years, decades, centuries, or longer before the car and Mars end up near each other.

Update: During the final burn of the rocket, to propel the roadster onto its orbit around the Sun, SpaceX apparently decided to run the rocket burn for as long as they could. As a result, the car will overshoot Mars orbit, reaching around 1.71 astronomical units away from the Sun at its farthest distance, and to just inside Earth's orbit as its closest to the Sun. The new orbit is roughly portrayed in the updated image, below. 


The updated projected orbit of Elon Musk's car. Credit: SpaceX/Scott Sutherland

According to Musk, the test of this new rocket system could have failed. There was no point in being overly optimistic. This was the very first test of the Falcon Heavy booster system, after all. However, when the launch went off as planned, it followed the schematic below:


Credit: SpaceX

After the trio of rockets carried their payload most of the way to space, two of the three boosters separated from the primary, and returned to Earth, landing just as the Falcon 9 boosters have done, back at Cape Canaveral, at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1). According to SpaceX, these two boosters are previously-flown Falcon 9 first stage rockets. So, both had flown to space and returned to land intact, before being repurposed for this test flight. One of the boosters launched the Thaicom 8 satellite into orbit in May 2016, while the other carried SpaceX's CRS-9 Dragon cargo ship towards its delivery at the International Space Station in July 2016.

Once the primary booster left Earth's atmosphere, the second stage separated from the primary booster and continued to carry Musk's car into space, while the primary booster attempted a landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship, "Of Course I Still Love You", out on the Atlantic Ocean. We are still waiting on whether this succeeded, as there is an inherent difficulty in getting footage of these droneship landings. As the rocket decends towards the droneship, the exhaust from its landing burn is known to scatter radio signals. Depending on how quickly the air clears, the signal can return immediately, or it can take some time. 

The fairings of the rocket opened next, exposing the rocket's payload to space, and some time from now, the Tesla roadster and its "Starman" passenger should separate from the second stage, and begin their journey around the Sun, for some eventual rendezvous with Mars, sometime in the (possibly distant) future.


The view from a camera beside Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster, now in orbit around Earth. Credit: SpaceX

In a press conference after the launch, Musk confirmed to those in attendance that the primary booster - the core that was landing on the droneship - missed its landing. It was only able to re-light one of its three engines to slow its decent, and thus was not able to slow itself enough to touch down safely. 

SpaceX first envisioned the Falcon Heavy as their primary rocket for delivering missions to Mars. While SpaceX may be called upon to use the Falcon Heavy to launch future robotic missions to the Red Planet, it seems that they'll be launching people there (when the time comes) with the new concept mission, the "Big Freaking Rocket" or BFR. Closer to home, the Falcon Heavy could be used to launch satellites directly into geostationary orbit, or carry missions - crewed or robotic - to the Moon.

As of Monday, the US Air Force's 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron reported that there was an 80 per cent chance of favourable weather for the launch, with the primary concerns being upper level winds and thick clouds. Today, in the hours before the launch window opened at 1:30 p.m. ET, SpaceX chose to delay the launch window until 3:45 p.m. ET, waiting for the upper level wind shear to calm to a point where they could launch safely. The intense changes in wind direction and speed that are associated with "wind shear" can cause havok with rockets, as they move at incredible speeds through the atmosphere. Even though cold and human decisions played a role in the disaster, extreme upper level wind shear was the ultimate cause of the Challenger accident, back in January of 1986.

Sources: Elon Musk | SpaceX | Phil Plait

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Monday, Feb 5, 2018. It has been updated to reflect the current developments in the story.

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