SpaceX Unveils Falcon Heavy Rocket for Early 2018 Launch Debut

The Falcon Heavy, processing towards its inaugural flight off KSC pad 39A in early 2018. Photo: SpaceX

This morning Elon Musk revealed in a tweet SpaceX’s highly-anticipated new triple-barreled Falcon Heavy rocket, which is slated to fly for the first time as soon as next month.

Liftoff of the 230 foot tall (70 m) rocket from launch complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida is expected to occur in January or February, but the company has not announced any dates publicly for static test fire or launch attempts yet.

New photos show the three cores now integrated in the company’s 39A Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), a scene teased for years by SpaceX. The company originally wanted Falcon Heavy flying missions beginning in “late 2013 or 2014”, but numerous delays, two exploded rockets (CRS-7 and AMOS-6), and greater than expected engineering challenges in developing Falcon Heavy all contributed to a now, much later expected debut of early 2018 for the new heavy-lift rocket.

The 27 engines of the Falcon Heavy, processing towards its inaugural flight off KSC pad 39A in early 2018. Photo: SpaceX

Given the delays and challenges, Musk has set the bar a bit low for the rocket’s first demo flight. “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage,” said Musk this summer. “I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

Both side boosters are already flight-proven, having previously landed after launching the Thaicom-8 and NASA CRS-9 missions, but the vehicle’s central core is new, built specifically to withstand the unique stresses and environment of launching with three cores and 27 engines.

All three cores will return to Earth for vertical landings after launch. Two will return to Landing Zone-1 on neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, while the central core will land on an offshore SpaceX autonomous drone ship.

With the ability to lift into orbit over 54 metric tons (119,000 lb)–a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel–Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost,” says the company on its website, comparing their heavy-lifter to ULA’s, their main rival.

At liftoff, all 27 engines will produce as much thrust as eighteen jumbo 747 aircraft at full power, or 5.13 million pounds of thrust. That will make it the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, which launched astronauts to the moon during NASA’s historic Apollo era.

All three cores underwent individual test firing at the company’s proving grounds in McGregor, TX long ago, but a lot of testing will now be needed on the fully integrated rocket ahead of static test fire and launch from 39A. Nobody has ever fired up 27 engines on a launch pad before.

Another view of the Falcon Heavy. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Soon, SpaceX will roll Falcon Heavy out from the HIF to the pad, raising it vertical for fit checks and validating the system, which will eventually lead to a dress rehearsal static test fire of the rocket.

Depending on the data obtained, more test fires may be conducted, further work may be required of the engines, rocket or pad support infrastructure, or SpaceX may decide the data is good enough to support a GO for proceeding with a launch attempt.

We will have to wait and see.

No pics of a red Tesla roadster awaiting integration atop the Falcon Heavy either (yet?).

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