SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch on track as custom booster aces static fire

SpaceX has successfully completed a static fire of its newest Falcon Heavy center core, a sign that the most challenging hardware is firmly on track for …

SpaceX has successfully completed a static fire of its newest Falcon Heavy center core, a sign that the most challenging hardware is firmly on track for a late-June launch target.

Currently penciled in for June 22nd, Falcon Heavy’s third launch is of great interest to both SpaceX and its customer, the US Air Force. Most of the two-dozen payloads manifested on the mission are admittedly unaffiliated with the US military. However, the rideshare – known as Space Test Program 2 (STP-2) – was acquired by the USAF for the branch to closely evaluate and certify SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket for critical military launches. The potential upsides of a successful demonstration and evaluation are numerous for both entities and would likely trigger additional positive offshoots.

Falcon Heavy center core booster completed a static fire test at our rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas ahead of its next mission → https://t.co/QjQ85Pfc1Opic.twitter.com/1UK1EUSryT

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 27, 2019

The Center Core experience

Beyond the general contractual aspects of STP-2, the mission is significant because it will use the third Falcon Heavy center core and second Block 5 variant to be built and launched by SpaceX. Of the technical issues that complicated and delayed SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy development, most can probably be traced back to the rocket’s center core, practically a clean-slate redesign relative to a ‘normal’ Falcon 9 booster.

Most of that work centered around the extreme mechanical loads the center core would have to survive when pulling or being pulled by Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters. Not only would the center core have to survive at least two times as much stress as a Falcon 9 booster, but that stress would be exerted in ways that Falcon 9 boosters simply weren’t meant to experience, let alone survive. After years of work, SpaceX arrived at a design that dumped almost all of that added complexity squarely on the center core and the center core alone. The side boosters would need to use nosecones instead of interstages and have custom attachment points installed on their octawebs and noses, but they would otherwise be unmodified Falcon 9 boosters.

USAF photographer James Rainier's remote camera captured this spectacular view of Falcon Heavy Block 5 side boosters B1052 and B1053 returning to SpaceX Landing Zones 1 and 2. (USAF - James Rainier)
Falcon Heavy side boosters B1052 and B1053 land at Landing Zones 1 and 2 (LZ-1/LZ-2) after their launch debut and Falcon Heavy’s first commercial mission. (USAF – James Rainier)
Falcon Heavy center core B1055 lands aboard drone ship OCISLY around 10 minutes after launch. (SpaceX)

On top of that, SpaceX’s Falcon upper stage and payload fairing would require no major modifications to support Falcon Heavy missions. On the opposite hand, the center core would require extensive rework to safely survive the trials of launch, let alone do so in a fashion compatible with booster recovery and reuse. Per the landing photos above, it’s difficult to tell a Falcon Heavy center core apart from a normal Falcon 9 booster, but the small visible changes are just the tips of several icebergs. Aside from a slight indication that the center core’s aluminum alloy tank walls are significantly thicker (they are), center cores feature a variety of unique mechanisms on their octawebs and interstages. All are involved in the tasks of locking all three boosters together, transferring side booster thrust to the center core, and mechanically separating the side boosters from the center core a few minutes after launch.

Underneath those mechanistic protuberances are the structural optimizations needed for a center core to survive the ordeal of launch. In short, to solve for those new loads, SpaceX wound up building a new rocket. Designing and building a new rocket – especially one as complex as Falcon Heavy’s center core – is immensely challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, particularly for the first few built. Like most complex products, building the first two Falcon Heavy center cores was probably no different. To make things worse, boosters 1 and 2 were based on totally different versions of Falcon 9 (Block 3 vs. Block 5), requiring even more work to further redesign and requalify the modified rocket.

Falcon Heavy center core B1057 completed its McGregor, TX static fire on April 26th, 10 days after the same booster was spotted eastbound in Arizona. (SpaceX)

This is where the center core assigned to Falcon Heavy Flight 3 and pictured above comes into play. Built just a few months apart from B1055, the first finished Falcon Heavy Block 5 center core, the newest center core – likely B1057 – is also the first to be built with the same design and manufacturing processes used on its predecessor. In other words, SpaceX can at long last begin serial production of Falcon Heavy center cores, allowing its engineering, production, test, and launch staff to finally get far more accustomed to the unique hardware.

Given Falcon Heavy’s healthy and growing manifest of 5-6 launches, SpaceX will probably need to build several additional Block 5 center cores over the next several years, hopefully resulting in a more refined flow for production, testing, and refurbishment. B1057 will be an excellent candidate for the first reused Falcon Heavy center core thanks to STP-2’s lightweight nature and an extremely gentle landing trajectory. With respect to Flight 3’s schedule, Crew Dragon’s April 20th explosion means that Falcon Heavy will have Pad 39A all to itself for many months to come. Truly the epitome of bittersweet, no doubt, but it does improve the odds that Falcon Heavy’s June 22nd STP-2 launch target will hold.

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Falcon Heavy Booster that Fell Overboard Now Ashore, SpaceX Plans to Reuse It

We’re not sure what the Ingress Protection rating for the Falcon Heavy central booster is, but it appears SpaceX is confident the hardware, or at least …
In the first week of April, the Falcon Heavy took off in its first commercial mission and nailed it. Not only the launch was a complete success, but so was the landing, with all three of the boosters and the two pieces of the fairing making it back to Earth in perfect conditions.

Of the three boosters, only the side ones landed on the ground, while the center, having burned for a while longer to carry its satellite into orbit, came down on a drone-ship stationed in the Atlantic ocean.

The landing went without a hitch, but Mother Nature had other plans and, while the ship was en route to Port Canaveral, toppled it by throwing high seas at it.

“As conditions worsened with eight to ten-foot swells, the booster began to shift and ultimately was unable to remain upright,” SpaceX said earlier this week.

The company’s teams managed to recover the booster, and on Thursday the precious cargo managed to reach the shore.

According to Spectrum News, the space company has plans to reuse at least some of the booster’s component on other rockets, provided they check out during upcoming inspections.

In its current configuration, the Falcon Heavy is made up of three boosters, each fitted with Falcon 9 nine-engine cores that combined generate 5 million pounds of thrust. The three, making up for what it’s known as Stage 1, are attached together, with the side cores connected at the base and the top of the center core’s liquid oxygen tank. The second stage, the one that actually gets the cargo into orbit, comprises a Falcon 9-sourced Merlin engine.

The next Falcon HEavy launch is scheduled for June.

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Musk Reads: SpaceX’s Mars City Could Face Cabin Fever

This has been Musk Reads #74, the weekly rundown of essential reading about futurist and entrepreneur Elon Musk. I’m Mike Brown, an innovation …

Falcon Heavy pulls off its first commercial launch; a sociologist warns about SpaceX’s Mars city; and Musk reveals what he would ask a human-level A.I.. It’s Musk Reads #74.

A version of this article appeared in the “Musk Reads” newsletter. Sign up for free here.

Musk Quote of the Week

“With steel membrane wings like a Dragon, we may be able to lower Starship’s orbital reentry temp to ~1000 degrees C, which would allow the whole surface to be uncooled bare metal.”

Falcon Heavy Demo Mission
Falcon Heavy Demo Mission

SpaceX

The Falcon Heavy successfully completed its first commercial launch with impressive media of the initial launch and subsequent triple-core landing. While it landed on the drone ship successfully, the company tells Inverse it was unable to secure the booster to the ship with the “octograbber.” It plans to tweak its methods for the next recovery attempt, which may prove useful as it prepares to use the world’s most powerful rocket for United States Air Force missions. Read more.

Musk’s dream of a city on Mars by 2050 could face cabin fever and nationalism, an astrosociologist told Inverse. Jim Pass, who founded the Astrosociology Research Institute 11 years ago, claims the mission needs more input from researchers who could avoid pitfalls like feelings of isolation. There’s also the question of governance. While Musk believes a direct democracy is best for smaller communities, Pass notes that the structure may naturally form from the inhabitants’ work methods. Read more.

What’s Next for SpaceX: SpaceX is continuing work on its orbital Starship prototype, with an expected unveiling in June.

Tesla alloy wheels
Tesla alloy wheels
Tesla’s logo on a wheel.

Tesla

Tesla’s robot taxi plan could earn its users $10,000 per year, an analysis claims. The figures, shared as the company plans an investor day to discuss its autonomous driving plans further, suggests a revenue of $29,018 per year, assuming a rental price of $2.50 per mile. It comes as Tesla also announces a Model 3 leasing system, without the option to purchase at the end as the company plans to use the cars to plug the gaps in its taxi fleet. Read more.

Tesla also raised the prices on its vehicles this week, including the semi-autonomous Autopilot system as a standard upgrade. The $35,000 Model 3 will stay available as an off-menu item, available for special ordering, and the company tells Inverse these special orders won’t include Autopilot to keep the lower price. Read more.

What’s next for Tesla: Tesla is set to unveil its autonomy plans during an investor day on April 22.

Photo of the Week

Burn, baby, burn!

Falcon Heavy shooting off
Falcon Heavy shooting off

More Musk Reads This Week

  • Fingernail-Sized Spacecraft Could Soon Scour the Solar System for Aliens. Read more.
  • Elon Musk and POTUS Candidate Andrew Yang Discuss A.I.’s Dangers on Twitter. Read more.

The Ultra-Fine Print

This has been Musk Reads #74, the weekly rundown of essential reading about futurist and entrepreneur Elon Musk. I’m Mike Brown, an innovation journalist for Inverse.

  • Sponsor Musk Reads and get your business in front of a brainy, curious audience that’s motivated to make the world a little better tomorrow.advertising@inverse.com.
  • Email me directly at mike.brown@inverse.com and follow Inverse on Twitter @inversedotcom. Follow me on Twitter @mikearildbrown.

A version of this article appeared in the “Musk Reads” newsletter. Sign up for free here.

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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to Try Again for Launch of Satellite

The majestic test launch of the Falcon Heavy in February 2018 carried the ambitions of SpaceX and Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, …

Are there more Falcon Heavy flights planned?

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.

Will Falcon Heavy go to the moon?

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.

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Falcon Heavy launch: what time to watch the SpaceX launch today, live stream and everything else

Upper atmospheric wind shear is very high. Will have to postpone launch unless weather improves soon. — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 10, 2019 …

SpaceX is today set to launch Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, just over a year after its much-anticipated debut flight.

It was initially scheduled to fly yesterday, but the launch was postponed by 24 hours with the company’s CEO Elon Musk citing issues with wind conditions high in the earth’s atmosphere.

Upper atmospheric wind shear is very high. Will have to postpone launch unless weather improves soon.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 10, 2019

What time can I watch the Falcon Heavy launch today?

The Falcon Heavy rocket is now scheduled to launch at 6.35pm EDT (10.35pm GMT), which is 11.35pm in the UK after the clocks changed to BST.

It is expected that the launch window will last for around two hours, with SpaceX calculating the weather forecast as 80 per cent favourable.

Flying out from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the rocket will carry the huge, 6,000kg communications satellite Arabsat 6A into a orbit 22,000 miles above earth.

A 2017 launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9, the Falcon Heaby’s predecessor (NASA via Getty Images)

Unlike the initial Falcon Heavy flight, this launch – the first time the rocket has been used for commercial work – will deploy its new “Block Five” side boosters for the first time, after using recycled versions for last year’s debut.

These are planned to return to landing zones close to the Kennedy launchpad, while the main, central booster will aim to land on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.

You can watch from around the world via SpaceX’s official YouTube live stream, below:

Why is Falcon Heavy special?

SpaceX claims that Falcon Heavy’s immense power means that it can carry a 141,000lb load into orbit – a weight greater than a Boeing 737 jet fully loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel.

Although the rockets’ second stage is identical, the first stage is comprised of three engine cores from the Falcon 9, the company’s previous flagship rocket which has been in use since 2010.

This, SpaceX estimate, gives the Falcon Heavy a lifting capability of almost three times that of the Falcon 9.

Beyond today’s launch, the rocket is also scheduled to fly later this year for the US Air Force, carrying 25 small satellites into orbit, while further commercial contracts have also been signed.

SpaceX’s outspoken, often controversial CEO Elon Musk (AFP/Getty Images)

What happened at the first Falcon Heavy launch?

Falcon Heavy made its first launch – also from the Kennedy Space Center – on 6 February 2018, memorably carrying a space-suited mannequin “driving” one of Musk’s Tesla Roadster sports cars.

Crowds thronged to NASA’s Kennedy Centre to see the launch – which was also disrupted by wind – with thousands gathering at surrounding beaches, bridges and roads to watch the rocket soar.

The mannequin, dubbed “Starman”, carried a copy of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the car’s radio set to play David Bowie’s Space Oddity on a loop.

The first Falcon Heavy launch carried a mannequin ‘driving’ a Tesla roadster (SpaceX via Getty Images)

Concrete or steel slabs are typically used as ballast for experiments but Musk characteristically made the decision to add some theatre to the proceedings.

The Falcon Heavy is a combination of three Falcon 9s, the rocket that the company uses to ship supplies to the International Space Station and lift satellites.

More Elon Musk

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