Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s Giant Rocket, Launches Into Orbit, and Sticks Its Landings

The Falcon Heavy roared into space on Thursday night, arcing atop three columns of flame toward orbit with a large satellite on board.

It was the second launch for what is the most powerful rocket in operation today, a reminder of its majestic test launch fourteen months ago from the same launchpad, 39A, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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At moments, the 2018 launch seemed like a lengthy advertisement for the ambitions of Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive. It carried a spacesuit-wearing mannequin, nicknamed Starman, seated in the driver’s seat of a red Roadster built by Mr. Musk’s other company, Tesla. The sports car and its driver streamed video back to Earth of their journey out into the solar system.

This time, the Falcon Heavy’s cargo was more mundane, but also more useful: Arabsat-6A, a Saudi Arabian communications satellite which will relay television, internet and mobile phone signals to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Shortly after the launch, the rocket’s three boosters returned to Earth. Two touched down seconds apart at landing pads at Cape Canaveral, not far from the launchpad. The center booster, which went higher and farther, set down on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.

Sticking that third landing was an advancement for SpaceX, after a similar maneuver failed in 2018 on the first try. The booster then missed the platform, hitting the water at more than 300 miles per hour.

The company’s workhorse is the Falcon 9 rocket, which first launched in 2010. The first stage of the Heavy essentially consists of three Falcon 9 first stages bound together. The second stages of the two rockets are identical.

The additional thrust allows the Heavy to propel 140,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, nearly three times what the Falcon 9 can lift.

On the test flight, the two side boosters were older versions reused from earlier flights. (SpaceX’s best innovation to date is landing the booster stage of its rockets and launching it again; traditionally, rockets have been one-use throwaways, with the booster stages dropped into the ocean.)

For this one, the side boosters had never before been used. They were the latest version of the rocket, called “Block Five.” (“Block” is what rocket companies call a major upgrade.) That boosts the thrust and how much the Falcon Heavy can carry.

Even though the first Falcon Heavy flight appeared to be nearly flawless, SpaceX probably made adjustments. That, after all, is the reason a rocket company performs a test flight for a new rocket design.

SpaceX also has had a backlog of Falcon 9 missions to fly. It launched 20 Falcon 9 missions in 2018, more than in any previous year, in addition to the one Falcon Heavy launch. The company was also busy at work developing its Crew Dragon capsule for taking NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The market for the Falcon Heavy is also much smaller than once envisioned. When Mr. Musk first announced the rocket in 2011, he said he expected that there would be a 50/50 mix between the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy. In the years since, improvements have made the Falcon 9 more powerful, and miniaturization of electronics has shrunk the size of many satellites.

The Falcon Heavy is now needed for only the largest satellites like the 13,000-pound Arabsat-6A satellite, which is headed to geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth. The satellite could have been launched on a Falcon 9, but with the added thrust of a Heavy, the satellite could use less of its own fuel to reach its final orbit, extending its lifetime.

One more Falcon Heavy flight is scheduled for this year — a mission for the United States Air Force carrying 25 small satellites.

In addition, SpaceX has announced contracts for two Falcon Heavy launches of commercial satellites, and the company has won two competitions to use the rocket for national security missions.

At present, no, but that answer could change.

In 2017, SpaceX announced that two space tourists would go on an around-the-moon trip in one of the company’s Crew Dragon capsules launched by a Falcon Heavy. But when the first Heavy reached the launchpad last year, SpaceX said it had decided not to go to the expense and effort of making the rocket safe enough for launching people.

The possibility of using the Falcon Heavy for lunar missions was revived last month by Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, when he told a Senate committee that the big rocket that his agency is developing, the Space Launch System, would not be ready for its first test flight in 2020. NASA was looking into using commercial rockets as an alternative, he said.

One of the alternatives was putting the second stage of the Space Launch System on top of a Falcon Heavy first stage. Mr. Bridenstine later said that option was feasible but could not be done by next year, because major changes would be needed to the boosters and SpaceX’s launchpad to accommodate the Frankenstein rocket combination.

Mr. Bridenstine, however, left the door open, saying that NASA would explore all options to meet the Trump administrations goal of sending astronauts back to the moon by the end of 2024.

SpaceX’s next-generation rocket was once known as B.F.R. where “B” stood for “big” and “R” stood for “rocket.” It now has the less colorful name Starship.

SpaceX has begun small hop tests of a preliminary design, nicknamed Starhopper. The full-fledged design is to reach orbit and eventually make distant journeys to the moon and Mars, but that is still years away.

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