SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket — described as “the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two” — finally completed its static fire test on Wednesday, January 24.
The test, also known as the hold-down test, involves preparing the rocket as though for takeoff, complete with propellant, and firing all 27 engines at once. The spacecraft, however, remains secured to the launch pad. The completion of this long-awaited trial run means that the Falcon Heavy is now moving closer to an actual launch date. In a tweet following the test, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that the historic event could take place in just a few days.
Falcon Heavy hold-down firing this morning was good. Generated quite a thunderhead of steam. Launching in a week or so. pic.twitter.com/npaqatbNir
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 24, 2018
We’ve been waiting a long time for this test — the most recent setback came during the government shutdown, as SpaceX requires support from the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing. “Due to the shutdown removing key members of the civilian workforce, the 45th Space Wing will not be able to support commercial static fires taking place on KSC,” a spokesperson for the 45th Space Wing previously said in a statement to The Verge. “Without our civilian workforce, the 45th SW is unable to support launch operations as well.”
Confirmed: No SpaceX #FalconHeavy static test fire due to government shutdown. Same goes for launches.
Statement: “Due to the shutdown removing key members of the civilian workforce, the 45th Space Wing will not be able to support commercial static fires taking place on KSC.”
mdash; Emre Kelly (@EmreKelly) January 21, 2018
Now that the government is back up and running, SpaceX managed to get back on schedule without wasting too much time.
The Falcon Heavy has been in place at NASA’s main facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida for several days and the highly anticipated test marked the first time all the engines were ignited at once.
Powerful rocket system
The Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets with a single upper stage. In terms of power, it is beaten only by the Saturn V rocket that once took astronauts to the moon. Incorporating SpaceX’s tried-and-tested reusable rocket system, the Falcon Heavy’s various separation processes are designed to take place soon after launch, with all three boosters landing back on Earth. (Want to learn more? Here’s everything you need to know about the Falcon Heavy.)
But SpaceX CEO Elon Musk knows that even with the successful test, the debut mission that would follow soon after still represents a monumental challenge. He noted last year that there’s “a real good chance” the unmanned Falcon Heavy won’t even make it into orbit.
If all does go to plan, the rocket will be taking Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster all the way to the red planet, where the CEO claims it could remain in orbit for a billion years. Musk earlier said he wanted to send “the silliest thing we can imagine,” adding that he loved the thought of a car “drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future.”
‘Beast’ of a rocket
Considering the size and power of the Falcon Heavy, it’s little surprise that Musk himself describes it as a “beast.” The first stage of the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket comprises “three Falcon 9 nine-engine cores whose 27 Merlin engines together generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft,” SpaceX says on its website.
In summer 2017, Musk teased the launch of the Falcon Heavy in an animation posted on Instagram, though at that time SpaceX had been hoping to launch the rocket a couple of months later. With so much at stake, however, it’s little surprise that preparations were stretched out. But now, it looks like we’re finally ready for the next phase.
Update: The Falcon Heavy test was a success.