Tag Archives: Falcon Heavy

Can you still see Starman?

Apparently, with sufficiently powerful optics and a bit of planning, the answer is “yes”.  Astronomers are now unofficially competing to see who can spot it the farthest away.  😉  Admittedly, they’re really seeing the Falcon upper stage more than anything else (it’s big and covered in reflective white paint after all), and currently the record stands at 2.5 million kilometers:

This was taken yesterday with a 0.8 meter reflecting telescope at Celado Astronomical Observatory in Italy, and the bragging rights go to Riccardo Furgoni and Giancarlo Favero.  The apparent magnitude of Starman was about 19.3, so there is definitely equipment that could still spot it.  And that actually makes this a very useful thing to be doing — tracking the Falcon upper stage and the Tesla Roadster is fantastic practice for tracking potentially hazardous asteroids.  It is, after all, on exactly the sort of Earth-crossing orbit we ought to be worrying about.


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The Tesla’s Orbit, Refined: Not Quite So Far

Yesterday, Elon Musk tweeted that the aphelion of the Tesla would put it out into th asteroid belt, but it seems that may not be quite right.  After the initial enthusiasm was over, planetary scientists who study near Earth objects did a bit of work with the final velocity figures released by SpaceX and it turns out the final orbit is actually closer to what SpaceX had originally predicted: a bit past Mars.  The aphelion will be about 158 million miles from the Sun, and it should reach that distance on or around November 19.

This is still far enough that it will still eventually be perturbed by Jupiter, but not as quickly as if it were reaching the asteroid belt.  According to Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University in Belfast, the Falcon upper stage and Tesla payload will likely remain in its current orbit for thousands of years (he did a quick estimate that suggested 10,000 years), but after that the orbit will begin to elongate due to gravitational perturbations.  (Other affects will also be at play, but are harder to predict — the solar wind can impart a force on objects, and solar radiation ablating away material can also significantly affect a small body’s path over long timescales.)  “Most near-Earth asteroids end by solar vaporization or ejection from the solar system by Jupiter. Near Earth Cars should be the same.”

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Falcon Heavy Launch Replays and Status

First off, the best news: the upper stage appears to have performed its final burn on schedule!  [UPDATE: final orbit is confirmed, with an aphelion extending nearly to the asteroid belt!]  SpaceX is doubtless waiting for confirmation of final orbit before announcement; this is a little trickier when the object is heading into heliocentric orbit and is therefore more challenging to track.  But spotters on the ground witnessed engine plumes consistent with the timing and expected ground track of the Falcon upper stage.  This view was from Marana, AZ:

Less good news: while the two side cores made perfect landings back at the Cape, the central core missed the droneship.  It’s unclear why at this point, but that’s definitely something that SpaceX will want to investigate.  Still, recovery is gravy at this point in the program, so it’s not bad at all, and it definitely got *close* to the barge “Of Course I Still Love You”.

And then we’ll wrap up with some coolness!  First, replay of the launch broadcast (skip ahead 22 minutes for the actual liftoff; skip to 25 minutes for a bit of David Bowie as we see fairing separation, revealing the mannequin “Starman” in the Tesla):

Now, the launch and landing as viewed by folks on the rooftop of the Cocoa Beach Hilton:

And I don’t know how long this next link will be good for, but Space Videos is streaming a reply of the Starman feed, showing the Tesla and its anthropomorphic occupant prior to that final burn:

Oh, and here’s a graphic showing the final orbit — nearly to the orbit of Ceres!  The “Mars-crossing” target was well and truly achieved, and then some.

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Falcon Heavy Flies Tomorrow (Cross Your Fingers!)

With luck and fair weather (the latter being a rather tricky thing given Florida’s climate), the Falcon Heavy will blast off from KSC’s LC-39A somewhere between 1:30 PM and 4:00 PM Eastern Standard Time.  It should be spectacular — no matter how it goes.  (Elon Musk is downplaying it by giving it just 50/50 odds of success.)

And to help get us all in the mood, SpaceX has released an updated animation, showing the actual flight profile (core stage landing at sea, rather than returning to Florida), and depicting the Tesla “mass simulator” that is acting as the payload, with the top down, and an astronaut dummy named Starman riding in the driver’s seat.

Note: the dummy only appears in some of the images I’ve seen on the Internet from the Tesla’s encapsulation.  So I am not 100% sure it still got to go along.  This animation seems to imply the pictures with him on board are the final ones, though:

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Falcon Heavy roars to life!

The Falcon Heavy at pad LC39A lit all twenty-seven of its engines for about ten seconds this morning, in what SpaceX declared a successful static fire test.  This is the most thrust Pad A has experienced since 2011, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis made the final flight of the Space Shuttle program.  (It’s also considerably less thrust than Shuttle, but only one other American rocket has ever hit that level — and it also flew from LC39: the Saturn V.)  This is also the most engines that any American orbital rocket has ever attempted to use simultaneously.  The only other rocket to have used so many engines was the N-1 (which had thirty on the first stage), and it had a very disappointing (and expensive) record — four attempts, all catastrophic failures.  But today’s test demonstrates one thing the Soviets were never able to do with N-1: perform an all-up static test fire, forcing them to test the combined performance of all engines only in flight, an exceedingly expensive and dangerous way to go about it.

Now SpaceX is looking ahead towards launch, possibly as soon as next week pending engineering analysis of the data collected today.  If all goes well, there will be a Tesla Roadster on a Mars-crossing heliocentric orbit by early February.  😉

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This Tesla is Going to Mars(ish . . . hopefully)

It’s a new year, and this new year will see a lot of cool stuff in space — but one of those cool things will be the long-awaited first flight of the Falcon Heavy!  It’s basically three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together, with a single upper stage, and it’s what Musk ultimately wants to use to boost his Red Dragon concept to Mars.  Red Dragon is experiencing delays of its own (the abandonment of propulsive landings for the ISS crew transfer Dragon is a bit of a blow, since that’s a prerequisite for Mars landings), but the launch vehicle is almost here.  And perhaps surprisingly for such an enormous rocket, it actually already has customers lined up.  The conventional wisdom is that there’s too little need for a rocket in this class to make it commercially viable, but it appears that the Falcon 9 reusability and parts commonality may just tip the scales enough to make it viable.  For this first flight, the core stage is brand new, but the two strap-ons are recycled, having previously boosted Thaicom 8 and the ninth commercial Dragon cargo mission to the ISS.

But what of the payload?

This is the first flight of a completely new rocket, so there is no paying customer.  Typically, a new rocket will carry some type of “mass simulator” — a slab of metal, a chunk of concrete, perhaps even a tank of water to do the job of being lifted for not a lot of extra money.  But that’s too boring for SpaceX.  So Elon Musk has contributed his cherry-red 2008 Tesla Roadster as the payload.  And it’s been installed on the rocket, which gives me no end of delight due to the sheer, beautiful ridiculousness of these images, showing the Roadster mounted on a payload adapter, about to be encapsulated in a payload fairing that is ridiculously large for such a tiny payload.

If you have the opportunity to be in Florida for this, I highly recommend it.  (I doubt I’ll be able to, alas.)  If all goes well, not only will this be the biggest thing lifting from LC-39A since the end of the Shuttle program, but it will also feature the spectacular return of three core stages.  Two will return to land at Cape Canaveral, while the central core stage will continue on for a water landing aboard the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” (equipped with its autonomous welding bot, Roomba, which secures the returned stage before the barge heads back to port).  The upper stage, meanwhile, is expected to boost the Tesla roadster into a Mars-crossing Hohmann Transfer Orbit, which it may persist for billions of years.  It won’t actually reach Mars; it won’t be launching at the right time for that.  (Unless it gets delayed sufficiently; the Mars window will be opening in March, just in time for Mars InSight to launch aboard its Atlas V.)

It’s ridiculous, but oh so cool all the same.  😉  If successful, it will be the first car (well, with seats anyway) to go beyond the Moon.

Meanwhile, since then, the vehicle has been rolled to the pad for a fit check.  All went well, and it was returned to the hangar.

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SpaceX could be the next to send humans to the Moon???

Yes, you heard that right.  They have yet to launch their crewed spacecraft as far as the ISS, but this week they announced that two undisclosed wealthy individuals have approached them about riding a Dragon capsule, boosted by their soon-to-fly Falcon Heavy, in a trip around the Moon.  (I’m betting they’re talking a lunar swingby mission, not an orbital mission.)  They plan on conducting this mission by the end of 2018.

For perspective, there are only two flights of Falcon Heavy currently on the manifest (the demo launch and a USAF experimental mission, one this year and one the next), and the crewed Dragon isn’t set to fly to the ISS until the fourth quarter of 2018 as it is.  (And the GAO recently expressed serious doubt about that even happening.)  So this is pretty ambitious.  Exciting, and very very cool, but certainly a stretch goal.

Who are the two individuals?  SpaceX isn’t saying.  They did, however, say they’d be happy to give NASA dibs on flying to the Moon aboard Dragon first — an announcement which came as a great shock to NASA, since they found out about all of this the same time the rest of us did.

This is sure to shake things up, and I’d not put odds on whether or not they’ll manage this.  I do have to wonder whether they’re overextending themselves.  They have put a lot of very ambitious challenges in front of themselves.  From a program risk perspective, this doesn’t seem like a good idea.  But if they pull it off . . . hoo boy.  There’s quite a payoff in terms of bragging rights, and it’s definitely a strong step towards their ultimate goal: Mars.

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