Elon Musk is about to send one of his own Teslas towards Mars. But the significance of the mission known as Falcon Heavy goes well beyond stunts.
It’s made headlines because Musk is using the opportunity to shoot one of his personal Teslas into orbit around Mars. Because he can, pretty much.
But the significance of the mission goes well beyond stunts. If successful — and that’s an important if — it will be a big moment for the space industry.
What is the Falcon Heavy?
SpaceX says it will be the world’s most powerful rocket in operation. It will be able to send heavy cargo like satellites into space on behalf of governments and private companies.
But the company says the rocket would also enable crewed missions to the Moon and Mars — two of the declared priorities of US President Donald Trump.
To get a sense of its power, the Falcon Heavy’s lift-off thrust is equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft.
“Only the Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, delivered more payload to orbit,” the company’s website said.
What is the significance of this launch?
Jason Davis, editor of The Planetary Society, said it would add serious competition to the space industry.
“It’s a huge deal, even for a spaceflight company that routinely accomplishes huge deals,” he wrote on his website.
“If the mission is a success, we will be one step closer to Musk’s incredibly ambitious aim to launch a manned Mars mission within the next decade.”
The price tag is a big part of the significance. SpaceX says it is currently charging $US90 million ($114 million) per Falcon Heavy launch. That figure can go up depending on what’s required, but Davis says it’s still significantly less than the cost of launching competitor United Launch Alliance’s less-powerful Delta IV Heavy, which can reach over $US400 million ($504 million).
NASA is building its own more-powerful alternative rocket called the Space Launch System. But that’s going to be more expensive still — potentially in excess of half a billion US dollars per launch.
Davis says the Falcon Heavy will be able to carry almost anything the industry currently needs. But the Space Launch System would be able to carry more weight, so NASA would have to make changes to its current plans for lunar missions in order to use the Falcon Heavy instead.
Are we confident the Falcon Heavy is going to be successful?
Musk himself has tried to temper expectations in the past.
“There’s a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy, a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit,” he said at a space conference mid-last year.
“I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”
The Falcon Heavy was revealed in 2011 and was originally meant to be launched in 2013, but it’s been beset by delays.
Things haven’t always gone to plan or schedule at SpaceX. Last year, Elon Musk released a blooper reel of failed rocket landings.
But the technology behind the Falcon Heavy isn’t unproven. If it looks a bit like three rockets joined together, that’s not a coincidence. Davis says it’s essentially comprised of three of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.
Falcon 9s haven’t just been successfully launched; in a world-first, they’ve also been recycled and launched for a second time. SpaceX also intends to recover Falcon Heavy’s booster rockets.
Is there any point to sending a Tesla into space?
Not especially. Elon Musk explained on Instagram that rockets on test flights usually just contain concrete or steel blocks, but he thought this was “extremely boring”.
So instead, he decided “the payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit”.
This was his rationale: