Editor's Note: Read our summary of the release here.
A little more than a year ago, SpaceX made a striking first launch for its new rocket, the Falcon Heavy. The flight sent the cherry-red Tesla convertible from founder Elon Musk, with an empty space suit dubbed Starman in the driver's seat, on a multi-million-year journey around the solar system. After the launch, the three propellers of the first stage of the rocket returned to Earth to try an unprecedented synchronized landing.
Now that rocket is preparing to fly again. Falcon Heavy represents SpaceX's ambition to compete for lucrative commercial and government heavy launch contracts, which would require the transport of payloads weighing more than 40,000 pounds in geosynchronous orbit. If this second flight is successful, Falcon Heavy will be much closer to meeting the stringent military requirements and getting those deals.
It is expected that Falcon Heavy's first commercial flight, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will be launched at 6:35 p.m. Eastern time (Thursday). Originally scheduled to fly on Sunday, the launch was delayed twice due to unfavorable weather conditions. This mission will transport a satellite from Saudi Arabia, called Arabsat 6A, in a geosynchronous orbit, where it will provide television, internet and telephony services for countries in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. A few minutes after the launch, SpaceX will attempt to land each of the three impellers of the first stage of the rocket: two on the runways near the launch site and one on a floating boat 600 miles from the coast. Last year, SpaceX managed to get two impellers to land again, but fuel problems prevented the core from getting stuck in its landing.
As the most powerful operational rocket in existence by a factor of two, the Falcon Heavy is nothing short of a technological marvel. With the thrust equivalent of approximately 18 747 pbadenger aircraft, it can hoist around 140,000 pounds in low Earth orbit and 58,000 pounds in geosynchronous orbit, more than enough to handle the 13,000-pound Arabsat. The main point of sale of Falcon Heavy, however, is that it is the only heavy launch vehicle in the world that has a built-in reuse capacity in its design.
Each of the three propellers of the first stage of the Falcon Heavy is borrowed directly from the Falcon 9 rocket, the SpaceX flagship, named for the nine Merlin engines that provide its thrust. Unlike the first Falcon Heavy flight, which used an older reinforcement model, today's vehicle will consist of three new block 5 motor cores. SpaceX first launched the Falcon 9 rocket from block 5 last May, and He has flown these reinforcements 13 times since then. Block 5 is designed to fly at least 10 times with a minimum turnover between launches, and offers a 7 percent boost in thrust over its predecessors.
If the Falcon Heavy can prove its worth, it could drastically reduce the cost of heavy launches. Since 2004, the heavy US launch market UU It has been dominated by the heavy Delta IV rocket from United Launch Alliance, which has half the lifting capacity at approximately four times the cost. A single trip on the heavy Delta IV has been quoted at around $ 350 million, while a launch of Falcon Heavy starts at $ 90 million for a completely new rocket, a price that can reach $ 70 million for launches that use reinforcements previously flown
For companies looking to launch a large satellite, the savings are significant. But it is likely that SpaceX will find its biggest client in the government of the United States. The existence of the Falcon Heavy could be good news for future deep space exploration missions, which often require a heavy launch capability to launch the spacecraft to Mars and beyond. These missions already have to fight to justify their cost, and between 10 and 20 percent of the price of a mission is usually reserved for the launch itself. If NASA can cut tens of millions of dollars from the cost of sending its spacecraft to other planets, these savings could, in principle, be used to develop exploration missions that would otherwise have been funded.
To handle military payloads, SpaceX still faces a series of obstacles before the rocket is released for use. The Air Force reserved a flight at Falcon Heavy in 2012, with an initial launch date scheduled for no earlier than 2015. That has not yet happened, but it did not stop the military from granting SpaceX a $ 130 million contract to launch a clbadified ad Satellite in a Falcon Heavy just months after its flight demo. Earlier this year, SpaceX won a second Air Force contract for another clbadified satellite that is expected to fly at Falcon Heavy. In February, however, the Department of Defense initiated an investigation into the military certification of SpaceX rockets for reasons that are still unclear.
These government agreements are increasingly important for SpaceX, especially since the commercial market for large satellites seems to be slow. In fact, a reading of the Delta IV heavy launch manifesto shows that most of its flights over the past 15 years have harbored a military payload, and the ability to hook some of these lucrative contracts in the future would represent a great gain for SpaceX.
Undoubtedly, the Air Force will pay close attention to the launch of Arabsat today, which will help demonstrate that the rocket can safely deliver its sensitive payload to the orbit. In addition, it is expected that the two lateral impellers flying today will be reused in the first Air Force mission this summer, baduming they land successfully at the Kennedy Space Center after their flight.
Meanwhile, the US military is helping clear the way for a new generation of heavy launch vehicles that will eventually compete against SpaceX. In March, the US government UU He reviewed his Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which was created almost two decades before SpaceX demonstrated a reusable rocket for the first time. According to these earlier guidelines, reusable heavy-launch vehicles under development, such as the Blue Origin New Glenn rocket, would have difficulty qualifying for sensitive military missions since rockets are not dispensable. The new National Security Space Launch program will provide a clear path to certify rockets using parts previously flown for military missions, a change driven largely by the success of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
Although it will eventually mean more competition, the willingness of the military to embrace the new generation of rockets is paying off for SpaceX. He already has two Air Force missions in Heavy's books, and the first is expected to fly in mid-June. The fact that SpaceX may or may not reach this target date depends on its ability to meet the rigorous certification standards for military contracts, and to delay the landing of Falcon Heavy reinforcements today.
Updated 4-11-2019, 1pm ET: The estimated time of release was reviewed.
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