In many parts of the country, the coming of autumn brings to mind a crispness in the air and the falling of the leaves; a colorful reminder of the coming of new seasons. The tropical climate of Florida’s Space Coast prevents such seasonal displays, but two major events for SpaceX this fall — the launch of SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket, and the reveal of the Mars Colonial Transporter — will symbolize a big shift in the American space industry.
SpaceX is within months of two major milestones.
Comprised of three of its first-stage Falcon 9 boosters, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will be the most powerful rocket in the U.S. since the Saturn V’s retirement with the launch of Apollo 17 in December, 1972. This configuration gives the Falcon Heavy the combined thrust of 27 kerosene-fueled Merlin 1D engines, generating 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.
Measuring 70 meters (229 ft) tall, and over 12 meters (40 ft) across its three boosters, the Falcon Heavy will be able to lift 53 tons into orbit (about half a dozen school busses). It will have the capability to send about half that weight into higher, geostationary orbits; and lighter payloads all the way to Mars.
Hoping to dramatically cut the cost of getting into space, SpaceX is already well underway in its program to land, recover, and relaunch the first stage of its Falcon 9 rockets. Since December 2015, the company has landed a total of five rockets. Its first, as well as Falcon 9’s most recent landing both occurred at SpaceX’s Landing Complex 1, in Cape Canaveral, FL. The intermediate three all successfully landed on SpaceX’s Automated Drone Ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Though SpaceX has yet to launch one its returned stages, the company has reportedly found a customer willing to put their payload atop the first rock ever to relaunch into space. Contract aside, SpaceX waisted no time in refitting its first reusable stage to launch again this fall.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is reportedly looking forward to the days when rocket landings are no longer newsworthy, as that will signify the capability’s true success in the eyes of the space entrepreneur. That isn’t likely to occur soon though, as the Falcon Heavy will attempt to land all three of its boosters nearly simultaneously — definitely newsworthy.
Two by land, one by sea
SpaceX plans on landing all three boosters of the Falcon Heavy as part of the rocket's maiden voyage. According to Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President of Flight Reliability at SpaceX, the company is currently seeking approval to build additional landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. These sites would serve as the landing targets for Falcon Heavy’s side boosters, which will likely land within seconds of one another.
Following the detachment of the two side-boosters, Falcon Heavy’s middle booster will continue to burn. With a reduced fuel reserve and higher velocity, the rocket’s main booster will touch down at sea in the minutes following the on-land landings.
SpaceX released this video demonstrating the launch and landing capabilities of their new Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to launch no earlier than November 2016.
SpaceX also plans to use to Falcon Heavy for its Red Dragon capsule. Aiming for a launch date to Mars for an unpiloted test of the craft’s capabilities sometime in 2018, Elon Musk’s aggressive Mars plans have largely remained a mystery.
Mars Colonial Transporter
Over the past several months, Musk has dropped hints revealing small parts of SpaceX’s plans to colonize the red planet. The company hopes to begin sending routine trips to Mars every two years starting in 2018, and Musk has been quoted many times stating that SpaceX will send humans to Mars as early as 2024.
SpaceX’s timeline seems even more ambitious considering the company has yet to present any design parameters for the much speculated Mars Colonial Transporter. The rocket manufacturer’s rumored super-heavy launch vehicle will supposedly have the ability to send 100 people to Mars at a time — but no one really knows for sure; no one but Elon.
The billionaire CEO subtly dropped a huge piece of information about the Mars Colonial Transporter after the company’s successful landing of its CRS-8 Falcon 9 booster. Making an unexpected appearance at the post-launch press conference, Elon Musk revealed in an answer to the Observer that SpaceX’s complete architecture for Martian colonization would be outlined this September in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress.