SpaceX unveiled plans for the massive Falcon Heavy (previously known as the Falcon 9 Heavy) in 2011 after completing several successful launches of the Falcon 9. The rocket has been inching closer to completion ever since, and now SpaceX has successfully tested the Falcon heavy’s core rocket module in a so-called static fire test. The test took place at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas last week.
The Falcon Heavy will essentially be three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. The core rocket is where most of the changes have been implemented, and that’s what was just tested. Additional structural supports and internal optimizations were needed to support the mass of two additional boosters linked to the sides. Still, it’s mostly the same as current F9 boosters with identical engines and fuel tanks. The side boosters are expected to be nearly identical to the current Falcon 9. Unlike the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy is a completely expendable vehicle — there will be no attempt to land the boosters after use. All three blocks will be jettisoned after use instead.
The core stage was fired while tethered to the ground in order to confirm none of the modifications would interfere with the expected engine performance. The test was a success, so the next major step is to assemble all three boosters and prepare for the first launch. That’s coming sooner than you think, and several SpaceX customers are already on the books for future Falcon Heavy launches.
First static fire test of a Falcon Heavy center core completed at our McGregor, TX rocket development facility last week. pic.twitter.com/tHUHc1QiKG
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 9, 2017
The added thrust of three rockets will allow SpaceX to get payloads into low-Earth orbit as large as 140,700 pounds. The regular Falcon 9 is only capable of about 50,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit. Launching to geostationary orbit (GEO) requires much more energy, though. The Falcon 9 SpaceX is currently flying is able to take smaller payloads up to GEO, but the Falcon Heavy will be able to wrestle several times more mass up there.
The Falcon Heavy’s real purpose is to push commercial spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. It was designed from the outset to be able to send payloads all the way to the Moon and Mars. In fact, both those missions are currently on the calendar for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. A test launch is currently scheduled for later this summer. Several months later, a collection of DoD satellites will be sent up. SpaceX also plans to use the Falcon Heavy to launch its mysterious moon orbit mission in late 2018 with two unnamed private citizens who have paid handsomely for the trip.