It’s finally launch day for the Falcon Heavy’s first mission, and SpaceX’s heavy-duty rocket platform is due to take off at 3:35 Pacific time. The launch will take a major communications satellite into orbit, and as an encore all three of the first stages will attempt to return to Earth and make soft landings. Success means the inauguration of a new era in spaceflight.
Falcon Heavy was first tested last February, with a dummy payload of a Tesla Roadster and a mannequin dubbed “Starman,” now somewhere past the orbit of Mars. Since then the rocket has gained a few improvements, including a reinforced center core that should help enable it to return safely.
In addition to taking an enormous satellite to orbit, SpaceX will be attempting to recover all three first stages and the fairing that covers the payload as well. The side stages will be guiding themselves to Landing Zone 1 and 2 nearby the launch complex, while the center core, having traveled much further, will land on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship Of Course I Still Love You. Other boats will attempt to catch both pieces of the falling fairing.
It bears mentioning here that not only are there essentially no launch vehicles in Falcon Heavy’s class, but certainly none that can autonomously return to Earth and be used again. SpaceX is very far out ahead of the competition here, though the next few years will see new entrants in the field. But this will be a first for several reasons.
The 230-foot assembly, all brand new rockets (rather than reused), is currently standing up at Launch Complex 39A, the site of many historic launches, from Apollo to Space Shuttle. T-0 is this evening at 6:35 local time in Cape Canaveral. You can watch it live below or at the SpaceX webcast site.
The important events we’ll be on the watch for will occur roughly as follows, in approximate minutes and seconds after takeoff:
- 1:09 after launch: Max-Q, the point at which the launch vehicle is under the most strain. As reliable as rockets have become, every launch is a white-knuckler until after this point.
- 2:30: BECO, or booster engine cutoff, when the side cores shut off and detach.
- 3:31: MECO, or main engine cutoff, when the central core shuts down and detaches from the second stage, which ignites a few seconds afterwards. The fairings will detach about 30 seconds later.
- 7:51: Side cores descend at LZ for landing.
- 8:48: Second stage first burn concludes and cruise phase begins.
- 9:48: Main core descends at drone ship for landing.
- ???: Fairing descends over ocean to be caught. Timing is unclear on this, but it probably will be a few minutes after the main core lands.
- 32:15: Second stage second burn begins, lasting 1:26.
- 38:43: Arabsat-6A detaches from launch vehicle and continues under its own power. At this point SpaceX will have completed its mission, though it will take some time for the satellite to arrive at its geosynchronous orbit.
We’ll be watching too, and will update this post with any relevant new info.