What makes SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch so special

Though delayed by five-six years, on February 7, U.S. tech and automobiles billionaire Elon Musk realised his 2011 dream and made history when the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, was successfully launched by SpaceX, a company he founded. The rocket’s payload was a cherry-red 2008 Tesla Roadster electric car with a mannequin wearing one of SpaceX’s spacesuits. The Roadster became the first automobile in deep space.

The launch of Falcon Heavy opens a new frontier in space exploration, particularly interplanetary missions and manned missions to the moon in the next few years and possibly to Mars in the next couple of decades.

The 230-ft-tall rocket with 2,500 tonnes of thrust, the equivalent of 18 Boeing 747 aircraft at full throttle, blasted into space with the capability of carrying as much as 64 tonnes of payload to low Earth orbit. This translates to doubling the maximum payload carrying capacity from 30 tonnes using the Delta IV Heavy. In comparison, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s GSLV Mark-III, the rocket with maximum payload carrying capacity, can hoist only about 10 tonnes payload to low Earth orbit.

What makes Falcon Heavy even more attractive is, of course, the cost per launch. At $90 million, it is light on the pocket compared with Delta IV Heavy, which costs about $435 million per launch.

It is sheer engineering brilliance that makes the Falcon Heavy cheaper to launch even when the payload carrying capacity is increased by a factor of two. While traditional boosters, which propel the rocket before getting detached, are discarded on falling back to Earth, SpaceX has found a way to bring the booster back to a predetermined place in a controlled fashion for a soft landing, so it can be reused. Since over 80% of rocket launch costs goes into building the rocket, reusing the boosters helps reduce the cost substantially.

Of the three boosters used to lift the Falcon Heavy, the two side boosters landed perfectly at almost the same time on two landing pads at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The third booster set to land on a floating platform failed to land correctly and splashed into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Falcon Heavy overshot its trajectory and is heading towards the asteroid belt.

Despite a textbook takeoff, the Falcon Heavy will miss its date with Mars as it overshot its trajectory; it is heading towards the asteroid belt instead. Unlike India’s Mangalyaan, the Falcon Heavy joins the ranks of other Mars missions of space-faring countries to have missed reaching the Mars orbit on the very first attempt.

For now, Falcon Heavy might not be a direct competitor to established space agencies for launching communication and other satellites as the focus is on the manned interplanetary mission. Herein lies the uncertainty. There is a great business opportunity in launching data-gathering satellites at a lower cost while profiting from manned missions is uncertain. Yet for Mr. Musk, who has been steadfast in his mission to build a rocket to reach Mars, and has achieved a technological breakthrough that even established space agencies have failed to accomplish, turning manned missions profitable might not be insurmountable.

Published in The Hindu on February 21, 2018

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