The world’s most powerful rocket finally has a date for its debut: Feb. 6.
In a tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed the target date for the first test launch of his company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is due to send Musk’s red Tesla Roadster sports car on a flight of fancy ranging out as far as the orbit of Mars.
He touted “easy viewing” of the scheduled liftoff from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which previously served as the site of liftoffs for moon rockets and space shuttles.
The Falcon Heavy consists of three Falcon 9 first-stage rocket cores, bristling with a total of 27 Merlin engines. A single-engine second stage sits atop the center core.
SpaceX has been conducting ground tests on the first Falcon Heavy for months, and the rocket has been going through checks and rehearsals for weeks. The first static-fire test of all 27 engines took place successfully on Wednesday.
Packing the potential for 5.1 million pounds of liftoff thrust, the 230-foot-tall Falcon Heavy will rank as America’s most powerful launch vehicle since the space shuttle — which achieved 7 million pounds of thrust at launch, thanks in large part to its solid-rocket boosters.
In terms of payload delivery to orbit, the Falcon Heavy will have more capacity than any rocket since the Apollo era’s Saturn V: as much as 140,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, or 37,000 pounds to Mars.
The Falcon Heavy is tailor-made for launching large satellites to geosynchronous orbits, or for sending payloads to the moon or to Mars. SpaceX points out that it could put a Boeing 737 jetliner in orbit, fully loaded with passengers, luggage and fuel.
For this first launch, the outer rocket cores are refurbished Falcon 9 first-stage boosters from previous launches. The center core is brand-new. The rocket is designed so that the outer cores break away during ascent and fly themselves back to SpaceX’s landing zones, while the center core is to be recovered at sea.
SpaceX officials have emphasized that the Feb. 6 launch date could be postponed, depending on how the preparations proceed. What’s more, SpaceX has scheduled a Falcon 9 launch for Luxembourg’s SES-16 / GovSat-1 telecommunications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 30. The logistics of that launch could conceivably have an effect on the timing for the Falcon Heavy’s debut.
The independent website NASASpaceflight.com, which was among the first to have advance word of the Falcon Heavy launch date, said the launch window on Feb. 6 would run from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. ET (10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. PT), with a backup window during the same hours on Feb. 7.
Despite all of SpaceX’s preparations, Musk has acknowledged that the success of the first launch is not assured. That’s a big reason why he’s putting an expendable sports car on the rocket rather than a commercial payload. (He also admitted to wanting to fly “the silliest thing we can imagine.”)
Last July, Musk noted that “there’s a lot that could go wrong” when 27 orbital-class rocket engines are lit up simultaneously. But he said he could guarantee at least one outcome from the Falcon Heavy’s first launch.
“it’s guaranteed to be exciting,” he said.