SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, has had a significant number of successes, and it already plans a manned mission to Mars. The rocket that SpaceX has put more recently functioning is the Falcon Heavy. Nowadays, this one is the most powerful existing rocket. The Saturn V, which tripped humans to the Moon, had much more power, but it was retired in 1973.
What is the Falcon Heavy made of?
The first stage of the Falcon Heavy is composed of 3 Falcon 9 rockets, one beside the other, and each of them is equipped with 9 Merlin 1D engines. Short after the lift-off, the two lateral rockets separate, followed shortly after by the centre one. The three rockets that from the first stage are capable of landing another time, either at the sea (on a boat) or on the ground, to be able to reuse them in the future. SpaceX is working on making the second stage reusable as well.
Once the three Falcon 9 cores that form the first stage are separated, the second stage, which has only a Merlin 1D engine, comes into action. The second stage is in charge of putting the rocket payload into orbit.
The two stages of the Falcon Heavy (as the Falcon 9 ones), burn kerosene and liquid oxygen to get its thrust.
This rocket has a height of 70 metres, and 12 metres in diameter. It can carry about 64 tonnes to low earth orbit (LEO). In theory, it could carry a payload of 17 tonnes to Mars.
An unmatchable performance
The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket in operation, as it can put in orbit more than double the payload of its closest competitor, the Delta IV Heavy. The 27 Merlin 1D engines that form the first stage can generate a thrust of 23 000 kilo-newtons (more than 5 million pounds). To compare, the thrust of this rocket is more than 18 times the one of a 747 aircraft at maximum power.
Since the Saturn V, a rocket as powerful as the Falcon Heavy had never taken off, even if this will soon change. This will be when the Starship construction will be finished. This rocket will be the biggest and most powerful rocket ever constructed in the history of humanity.
The first launch
The first launch of the Falcon Heavy took place on February 6th, 2018. About 100 000 thousand persons assisted in the launch in person. On YouTube the launch was emitted live, reaching 2.3 million, viewers, turning it into the second stream with the most viewers in the history of YouTube.
The first launch had to be delayed some hours due to strong winds in the high layers of the atmosphere. Once ejected, the two lateral rockets of the first stage landed, without any incidents, near Cape Canaveral. The centre one, which had to land on a boat in the sea, couldn’t turn on two of its engines during re-entry. It crushed 100 metres away from the boat at a speed of 500 kilometres per hour.
Once the payload of this first launch arrived in orbit, the cameras showed, inside the capsule that carried the payload, the cherry red tesla of Elon Musk, crewed by a mannequin named Starman.
Payload capacity and cost reduction
Nowadays, Falcon Heavy is the rocket with the most payload capacity: 64 tonnes to LEO. Moreover, it has a great advantage, as its first stage, which is based on the design of the Falcon 9, is reusable, and SpaceX is working on making the second stage also reusable.
Thanks to these characteristics, this rocket has lowered in great measure the price of sending a kilogram of material to orbit. During the 4 decades that followed the Apollo missions to the Moon, the price to send a kilo of material to orbit has been 10 000 dollars. Thanks to the innovative system developed by SpaceX to reuse rockets, used by the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, this price has been lowered to 2 000 dollars per kilo.
This price could be reduced even more if the number of launches every year augmented drastically. We put for example SpaceX, which spends annually about 1 billion 200 million dollars. In the case of launching 30 rockets every year, it would have to charge 40 million per launch to balance the expenses. If on the contrary, the frequency of launches was about 300 rockets every year, they would only need to charge 4 million per launch.
Trips to the Moon and Mars
One of the main objectives of Falcon Heavy is to take another time humans to the Moon, and possibly Mars. It can be ideal for these missions, as it can carry a big quantity of material to these two celestial bodies, it is in a big part reusable (for which it can lower greatly the prices of the spatial travel, and many of them can be constructed.
However, when the Starship will be in operation, it is very probable that the Falcon Heavy won’t be used for these purposes.
New Glenn, its coming competitor
Nowadays, the closest competitor of SpaceX is the Blue Origin company, created by the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos. Like SpaceX, Blue Origin’s objective is to build reusable rockets, and it has accomplished it several times thanks to its suborbital rocket New Shepard, capable of reaching a heigh of 100 kilometres.
Until 2016, the public profile of Blue Origin was the one of an enterprise offering suborbital flights, experiencing micro-gravity for 5 minutes to the ones that desired to go to space. This wouldn’t have made it an important competitor to SpaceX. However, in September 2016, Blue Origin announced its plans to create the New Glenn, a two-stage, reusable rocket, and capable of carrying 45 tonnes to Low Earth Orbit. Jeff Bezos said he is disposed to spend a billion dollars, from his own money, every year, to make this system a reality, so it has to be taken very seriously.