SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket will lift off this coming spring

In 2011, Elon Musk announced that SpaceX would commission a higher-capacity launch vehicle, built on the same technology platform as the Falcon 9 (currently at version 1.1).This new rocket is designed to lift more tonnage to orbit than any rocket currently commissioned on Earth. While it doesn’t have the same throw weight as the Saturn V, which still holds the record at 118,000 kg to low Earth orbit (LEO), Falcon Heavy will be capable of lifting up to 53,000 kg to LEO.

SpaceX’s Lee Rosen, VP of mission and launch operations, has announced that SpaceX was wrapping up its renovations to the old Shuttle launch pad, which it currently leases from NASA. The first flight for Falcon Heavy is currently set for the “late April-early May timeframe.” The initial launch will simply be a demonstration mission rather than a payload delivery, but if all goes well, the Falcon Heavy will enter service with customers by September. The first mission is a September 2 2016 launch, in which Falcon Heavy will deploy 37 satellites for the US Air Force. This will be followed by satellite launches for Inmarsat and ViaSat before the end of 2016, though the company declined to give dates for these.

Falcon 1 - Falcon Heavy

Falcon Heavy’s launch schedule has been pushed back several times already by a combination of development delays and the loss of multiple Falcon 9s earlier this year. While SpaceX believes it has that problem well in hand, rocketry is a conservative business — well, as conservative as you can be while igniting huge amounts of propellant below a glorified metal tube with a total value measured in dozens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

The long-term goal for Falcon Heavy is for it to use the same reusable launch technology that’s being developed for the Falcon 9. It’s been presumed that the same technology changes that have been rolled into Falcon 9 as that design matures will be deployed for Falcon Heavy as well. Not only does it potentially save money to keep both families operating a single rocket version, it allows the Falcon Heavy design to learn from Falcon 9’s successes and failures. If SpaceX follows its previous schedule, it will launch the Falcon Heavy in a conventional version first, then begin attempting to recover the vehicle stages after launch.

The Falcon Heavy doesn’t have enough lift capacity to launch manned missions to other planets, but it could be instrumental in extending the types of science experiments we could perform with remote devices. SpaceX has previously stated it believes that Falcon Heavy could land payloads of 2000-4000kg (4400 – 8800 lb) on the surface of Mars. That’s more than 4x the weight of Curiosity, and could allow for unprecedented exploration of Mars or the moons of Jupiter. NASA’s SLS will be required for further manned exploration of the solar system, but that system isn’t expected to reach its full potential until 2030.

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