Last week, we were treated to the rather glorious moment when SpaceX landed one of its reusable rockets for the first time, possibly ushering in a new low-cost era in spaceflight.
But later this year, we’re expecting something even more impressive. The company is planning to launch its new heavy-lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, by the end of the summer, and in a series of tweets Musk said they might return pretty much the whole rocket to the ground.
SpaceX has now performed nine landings of its Falcon 9 rocket. But each landing involves just the first stage of the rocket, the bottom booster used to give it that first big push towards space.
To achieve its goal of full reusability, SpaceX eventually wants to start landing the other parts of the rocket too, including the upper stage that gives the payload its boost into orbit. This hasn’t been done before, but it could be a game-changer if it works. And it seems they're going to try it on this flight.
It’s not entirely clear how the landing will play out, though. The Falcon Heavy will basically consist of three Falcon 9 boosters strapped together, and we know SpaceX can land those. Two of the boosters on this first falcon Heavy test flight will actually be reflown boosters.
But whether all three will land isn’t clear. SpaceX can land on the ground at its Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral in Florida, or on its two drone ships – Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read The Instructions – so it’s got some options.
As for the upper stage, Musk hinted that this may return in a similar way to its Dragon capsule. This suggests it may use parachutes or thrusters to splash down in the ocean. It'll have quite a bit of speed when it detaches from the first stage, so it could even orbit Earth several times before it returns.
What a Falcon Heavy launch might look like. Note, the upper stage doesn't return in this video
Once it starts flying, Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in operation – and second only to the Saturn V in history. It will be able to take 54,400 kilograms (119,900 pounds) to low Earth orbit, compared to 28,790 kg (63,470 lb) for the Delta IV Heavy, the world's current most powerful rocket.
This first flight will only be a test, so the rocket is unlikely to carry anything useful. Musk said it would carry the “silliest thing we can image,” perhaps similar to the inaugural flight of the Dragon spacecraft, which carried a wheel of cheese in honor of Monty Python.
We’ve been waiting quite a long time for this Falcon Heavy launch, it having been delayed for several years. But it looks like it might be worth the wait.