SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch: The world's most powerful rocket successfully nails its landing

The Falcon Heavy rocket blasted off from NASA's historic Pad 39A earlier this morning.

In yet another win for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully completed its first commercial mission and actually stuck its landing. To recall, this was the same rocket that launched a Tesla into space in 2018.

Blasting off from the historic Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre at 4.05 am early this morning, the spacecraft deployed its Arabsat-6A satellite payload and successfully returned to Earth (it didn’t blow up). Pad 39A is the launch pad that played host to the historic Apollo missions as well as NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

The Falcon 9 Heavy lifting off from the historic Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre.

The Falcon 9 Heavy lifting off from the historic Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre.

Arabsat-6A is a Saudi Arabian communications satellite that is designed to serve the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

The Falcon Heavy platform comprises three Falcon 9 stages. The central or ‘core’ stage consists of two stages: the upper portion of the core stage holds the payload — the satellites and whatever else that needs to be placed in orbit. While SpaceX has successfully recovered the booster stages before, this is the first time that it also successfully recovered the core stage.


Falcon Heavy design

The three stages are each powered by nine Merlin 1D rocket engines (that’s 27 engines in total) and the upper stage is powered by a single, modified Merlin 1D engine designed to operate in the vacuum of space.

All 27 engines fire up at launch but the nine of the core stage go idle after the first few seconds. They fire back up once the boosters have expended their energy and dropped off.

Since the booster stages expend the bulk of their energy and detach earlier on in the flight, it’s easier to recover them. The core stage, on the other hand, fires much later and is travelling much faster. This also means it needs more fuel to return safely and thus, leads to an interesting conundrum.

SpaceX can either recover the centre stage and limit the payload to 8,000 kg (this is cheaper) or it can discard the centre stage and thus deliver a record-breaking 16,000 kg payload to GTO (geosynchronous transfer orbit). For the sake of comparison, India’s GSLV Mk III can only take a 4,000 kg payload to GTO.

SpaceX is still working on a plan for recovering the upper stage and fairing assembly.


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