Around Florida’s Cape Canaveral, hotel rooms are currently all sold out.Thousands of cars are parked in parking lots. People have been streaming into the area from all over the world, awaiting what could be a once-in-a-lifetime event. They aren’t attending a conference, or a concert — their attention, instead, will be focused on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where SpaceX is going to attempt one of the most ambitious space launches of all time.
Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s newest rocket, will take off from the launchpad at around 12 am IST. Falcon Heavy, is, quite simply, the most powerful rocket in the world. It is capable of putting 63,000 kgs into lower orbit, which is roughly equal to the weight of 12 Asian elephants. The rocket was announced by SpaceX all the way back in 2011, and after a series of delays, is finally ready for lift-off.
Why was it built?
Falcon Heavy is designed to push the boundaries of what can be hurled out of Earth’s atmosphere. The Falcon Heavy is twice as powerful as any other rocket out there. With its additional power, it can carry much bigger satellites than was previously possible. It can also carry lots of small satellites, like the ones Musk had proposed for his global internet plan. And most crucially, the rocket can take robots to Mars, which could be the first step in setting up a Mars colony.
What makes it unique?
Falcon Heavy is not only the most powerful rocket in the world, but it’s also designed to be cheap. After the rocket takes off, three of its engines will separate from the main body, and will fall back to earth. Two of these will be made to gently land on landing pads built on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center. Yet another will land on a barge that’s floating in the sea. These engines can then be reused for future launches, which means that SpaceX’s rockets are cheaper than those of competitors — SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will cost only about $90 million (which at Rs. 600 crore, less than the money Flipkart burns in a month). Falcon Heavy is roughly half the cost of comparable, less powerful launches.
What is the rocket carrying?
Since this is Falcon Heavy’s first flight, only a dummy payload is being risked. Demonstration missions like this one typically carry steel or concrete blocks as mass simulators, but Elon Musk, being Elon Musk, has chosen something pretty special. The Falcon Heavy carries within it Musk’s personal cherry-red Tesla roadster. The car has a suited mannequin strapped to the driver’s seat, and will have David Bowie’s Space Oddity playing on its radio.
What happens if the launch is successful?
If the launch is successful, Falcon Heavy will release the Tesla Roadster into space. The car will then be pushed into an Earth-Mars orbit, where it will continue to revolve around the Red Planet. “We estimate it will be in that orbit for several hundred million years, maybe in excess of a billion years,” Musk said. The car will be zooming through space at 11 km per second during this time, hopefully with Space Oddity playing throughout.
What are the chances this could happen?
Musk has tried to downplay the chances of success of the mission. He’s emphasized it is the rocket’s maiden flight, and there are lots of unknowns SpaceX will deal with. “I’ll consider it a win if it just clears the pad and doesn’t blow the pad to smithereens. That’s 4,000,000lbs of TNT equivalent. There’s probably not going to be much left if that thing lets loose,” he’s said. He’s added that it will be a “great rocket launch or the best fireworks display.”
The world, though, has its eyes trained on the rocket launch. Millions will be watching the launch live on SpaceX’s website, and even fellow entrepreneurs have taken notice. “Best of luck SpaceX with the Falcon Heavy launch tomorrow – hoping for a beautiful, nominal flight!” tweeted Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos, interestingly, runs his own space company, Blue Origin. Blue Origin has been working on its own rocket called New Glenn, which will be able to put 45 tonnes in low-Earth orbit.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 5, 2018
SpaceX’s launch will be momentous, one way or the other. The launch is happening from some pretty hallowed ground too, as far as space history it concerned — Falcon Heavy will launch from the same launchpad that had launched Apollo 11 nearly 50 years ago, and enabled man to first step foot on the moon. All these decades later, SpaceX will hope that this launch will be the first step towards humanity’s first steps on Mars.