You might be excited about the Falcon Heavy launch later today, but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has already set anticipations high for what might be coming next.
Taking questions from reporters yesterday (February 5) in a conference call, Musk said the spaceship part of SpaceX’s next venture – the Big F*cking Rocket, or BFR – could be ready by next year. That’s even before we’ve seen the Falcon Heavy take flight.
BFR, if you remember, is Musk’s vision to send people around the Solar System and colonize Mars. It consists of a single giant reusable booster – dubbed by Musk the BFB (you can work that acronym out for yourself) or BRB (as it’ll “be right back”) – and a reusable spaceship on top.
The somewhat ambitious plan is to use that ship for many different missions, including trips into deep space – such as the Moon, Mars, or even icy moons like Europe and Enceladus – and also to take passengers on flights on Earth, reducing the time between distant cities to 30 minutes at the cost of an airplane ticket.
“We’ve decided to focus our future developments on the BFR,” said Musk. “It looks like the BFR development is moving quickly.”
SpaceX had originally planned to use its Falcon Heavy to send two paying customers on a Crew Dragon spacecraft around the Moon at some point in the coming years. But Musk said they were not going to push ahead with putting Falcon Heavy through tests to enable it to carry humans, something that is costly and time-consuming, unless progress on the BFR stalls.
“Our focus is on the [BFR] ship,” said Musk, adding somewhat surprisingly that they “expect to do short flights with the ship next year. That’s aspirational.” Exactly what those flights will entail isn’t clear, but we’d guess it could be similar to the “grasshopper” reusability tests done to practice landing rockets a few years ago.
So where does that leave Falcon Heavy? Well, we’re not sure. What we do know is at 1.30pm EDT (6.30pm GMT) today, a 2.5-hour launch window opens for its inaugural launch. It’ll take off from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
On board is Musk’s Tesla Roadster car, which will be sent towards the orbital plane of Mars if all goes to plan. After the launch, SpaceX hopes to land the three boosters of the Falcon Heavy back on Earth – two on land and one at sea.
Musk said he was feeling “quite giddy and happy” as the launch approached. “Normally I feel super stressed out but this time I don’t,” he said. “It might be a bad sign.”
He has made no secret of how risky this launch will be. He said there was a roughly 50-50 chance of it actually working, with a decent chance the rocket might explode – although it’s hoped the rocket will at least have cleared the pad by then if the worst happens. It could take between eight and 12 months to fix the pad if it’s severely damaged.
One of the big unknowns is the separation of the boosters from the core of the rocket itself. SpaceX has not been able to test this on the ground at all, so we’ll have to wait and see how that goes.
The upper stage of the rocket, meanwhile, will not return safely to Earth. It will carry the Tesla Roadster for six hours through the Van Allen radiation belts that surround Earth, where Musk said the car is “going to get whacked pretty hard”. He noted the Tesla might not make it out of Earth orbit, as the fuel could freeze on board the upper stage (the car doesn’t have its own propulsion).
If it does make it past the belts, the car will then be placed into a heliocentric orbit (one around the Sun), extending beyond the orbital plane of Mars. Musk said it would be in that orbit for several hundred million years, “maybe in excess of a billion years”.
“At times it will come extremely close to Mars,” he noted. “There’s a tiny, tiny chance it will hit Mars. Extremely tiny. I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
There will be three cameras on board the car, sending images back to Earth as it makes its way into space. Some sensors are also on the upper stage, but Musk said the “fun stuff” was the cameras. “Will provide some epic views if everything goes well,” he said.
Musk noted that with a $90 million launch price, Falcon Heavy could far undercut their competitors, and offer a service for governments or commercial companies to reach geostationary orbit with ease. That may be one of its key selling points, alongside possible science missions to deep space destinations.
“If we’re successful in this it is game over for all other heavy-lift rockets,” he said. “It’s like trying to sell an aircraft where one is reusable, and the others are single use.” He also said, if they wanted to, they could add two extra boosters to the rocket and make a “Falcon Super Heavy”.
Provided everything goes okay, SpaceX hope to be able to launch their first commercial Falcon Heavy mission – a large communications satellite for Arabsat from Saudi Arabia – in three to six months. If the launch doesn’t go to plan, well, there will probably be some delays.
“It will be a real huge downer if it blows up,” Musk said. “But hopefully, if it goes wrong far into the mission, we can at least learn as much as possible along the way.”
“It’s guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another,” Musk added. “Either an exciting success or an exciting failure. One big boom. Tune in, it’s gonna be worth your time.”