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The Falcon Heavy on its launch pad.
SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy on its launch pad.
SONIC BOOOOOOOOOOOOMS

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch might mean moon missions for Elon Musk

By Tim Fernholz

The SpaceX rocket expected to vault a Saudi communications satellite into orbit on April 11 is also auditioning to explore space with NASA.

The Falcon Heavy rocket is the most powerful operational rocket in the world, designed to fly the largest satellites into the highest orbits over the earth. The communications satellite being flown in this launch, Arabsat-6A, weighs about six metric tons (6.6 tons). The launch was scheduled for April 10 but poor weather conditions postponed the mission.

Though this is just the second flight of the rocket, a smooth mission could bring Elon Musk closer to his dreams of taking humanity out into the solar system. NASA has set a new goal of landing humans on the moon in 2024 that may require SpaceX’s help to achieve.

The vehicle is effectively three of SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 boosters lashed together. It debuted with a Feb. 2018 flight that sent a Tesla roadster into orbit around the sun.

SpaceX warned residents of the Florida coast that there are likely to be three large sonic booms when the three boosters return to earth after delivering the satellite.

Arabsat-6A will be launched to an orbit roughly 36,000 km (22,369 miles) above the earth, where it will remain over Africa, the Middle East and Europe as it circles the earth.

You can watch the launch and attempt to return the boosters at 6:35 pm EDT on SpaceX’s live stream:

 

Human motivations

SpaceX is still showing NASA that its rockets are safe enough to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. A successful test run of that mission in March showed that the company’s Dragon spacecraft was capable of successfully flying to the ISS, docking with the orbital habitat, and then returning to earth to splashdown in the ocean. That means the company could actually launch a crewed flight later this year, pending a few other loose ends.

One requirement is that the company fly seven times using an approved system of pressurized gas canisters in its rockets. Those canisters, known as composite overwrap pressure vessels or COPVs, were linked to a 2016 fire that destroyed a SpaceX rocket and satellite.

SpaceX and NASA re-configured the system and have now flown it six times in the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and twice in the reusable booster stage. This Falcon Heavy flight will feature the new COPVS in both stages of center booster, which could give NASA the data it needs to finally certify the design for human spaceflight.

Moon improvisation

The Falcon Heavy earned global plaudits when it launched, but got a distinctly cool reception from the US space establishment, which has spent $17 billion on a Boeing-built heavy rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) that faces lengthy delays.

However, in March, NASA administrator James Bridenstine raised the possibility of keeping a planned lunar test of an uncrewed deep-space vehicle on schedule for 2020 by launching it on a commercially-available rocket like the Falcon Heavy instead of waiting for SLS.

SpaceX’s rocket only has about 60% of the lifting power of the SLS, but it costs about one-tenth per launch thanks in part to its reusable boosters, and it is flying today. Using it for the moon mission would come with its own technical hurdles, like figuring out how to mate the spacecraft, called Orion, with the Falcon Heavy, and then to re-fuel it in orbit.

It might be feasible, but only if the Falcon Heavy continues to demonstrate its capabilities with this launch and four others scheduled in the coming years.

Musk, who says he wants to retire on Mars, has already launched the first private moon mission on a Falcon 9 rocket, an Israeli probe expected to touch down on the lunar surface on April 11. His company has also sold a flight around the moon to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on the as-yet-unbuilt Starship space vehicle.

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This story was updated to reflect a new launch time.

Tim Fernholz
Reporter
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