Well, it happened. It actually happened. After seven years of waiting, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off last night from Cape Canaveral in Florida in a stunning launch watched around the world.
On board was Elon Musk’s own Tesla Roadster car, intended to be shot to the orbital plane of Mars because reasons. However, it looks like the car overshot a bit, and it’ll actually head further into the Solar System, to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The car was on a six-hour coast through space on the top part of the rocket, the upper stage. SpaceX had then planned to ignite the upper stage, known as the third burn, and send the car into its final orbit. They weren’t sure this would work, however, but it looks like it did.
“Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt,” Musk wrote on Twitter.
Amazing images were returned back to Earth of the car heading to orbit, with its “Starman” mannequin inside and a dashboard message of “Don’t Panic!”, a reference to Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Three cameras on board the car gave us some pretty amazing views of Earth, and some unbeatable advertising for Tesla to boot.
Thanks to that third burn the car is now on an orbit that will take it 2.61 AU from the Sun (1 AU, astronomical unit, is the Earth-Sun distance). That’s almost to the orbit of Ceres at 2.77 AU, a dwarf planet and the largest body in the asteroid belt. Originally, it was intended only to reach the orbital plane of Mars.
Musk had originally said the car would survive in space for up to a billion years. However, it’s not clear whether this new orbital path will change things – there’s a chance Jupiter could cause the orbit to degrade within decades.
“You can tell it's real because it looks so fake,” Musk joked in a post-launch press conference. “Everything looks too crisp. We didn't really test any materials, it has the same seats, it's just a normal car, in space... I like the absurdity of that."
The purpose of this was several-fold. One reason is that it proves Falcon Heavy can be used to send payloads into high orbits – such as geostationary orbits, useful for people like the US military.
It also shows that Falcon Heavy can send things to Mars and beyond. That might be useful to, say, asteroid miners, who are hoping to send spacecraft into the asteroid belt. And to scientists, too, who want to send missions around the Solar System.
Relive the launch here if you missed it.
The Tesla will take about eight months to reach the end of its orbit, at which point it will make the long journey back to our orbital plane. If it doesn’t get flung off by the gravity of a body like Jupiter, it’ll remain on this orbit indefinitely, or until it hits an asteroid or a planet (both of which are pretty unlikely).
Not everyone was happy with this plan. A lot of scientists have expressed frustration that Musk sent his car into space, rather than a useful scientific mission – even if there was a risk of the rocket blowing up.
Musk has frequently said he did this rather than using a concrete test weight, as he explained has been used on other maiden rocket flights. But that's not always the case. The first Ariane 5 launch in 1996, for example, carried four useful satellites (although the launch failed). Atlas V, launched for the first time in 2002, carried a group of satellites. And even the Falcon 9's first flight in 2010 had something useful, a prototype Dragon spacecraft.
Whatever your views on that, there’s no denying the launch was seriously impressive. First unveiled by Musk in 2011, and delayed for about five years, Falcon Heavy has now launched into our heart – and our wallets.
With a launch price of about $90 million, Musk says SpaceX can now far undercut their competitors, going so far as to say this was “game over” for all other heavy-lift rockets – such as the Delta IV Heavy, which is four times more expensive but less than half as powerful.
That low cost is made possible by the fact most of the rocket is reusable. About eight minutes after the launch, the rocket's two side boosters returned to Earth in a stunning simultaneous double landing.
Musk later said that the center core booster had crashed into the ocean at 300mph (480km/h) and been destroyed, after running out of fuel while attempting to land on a drone ship. This booster went further into space, which is why it attempted a landing further out at sea.
That doesn’t take too much away from the launch, however, considering it was 50-50 if the rocket would blow up or not. It didn’t, and it’s now the most powerful rocket in operation today, and the biggest to launch since final Saturn V launch in 1973.
The exact purpose of the Falcon Heavy is still a bit unclear, as Musk said they were now focusing on its successor, the Big F*cking Rocket (BFR). Still, it has four planned upcoming launches, and there may be more in the works. Scientific missions seem like a pretty good bet.
“Falcon Heavy opens up a new class of payload,” said Musk. “It can launch things directly to Pluto and beyond. No stop needed, with no gravity assist.”
There’s little doubt, though, that SpaceX has inspired a whole new age of space exploration. The world is gripped by Falcon Heavy fever. Whatever comes next, we're happy to be along for the ride.
Update February 8: Looks like the car might just make it to Mars orbit, although that's to be confirmed.