According to a report from NASAspaceflight.com, SpaceX is targeting late December for the maiden flight of the highly anticipated Falcon Heavy, the launch vehicle that is poised to become the most powerful operational rocket in the world. The launch would occur no earlier than December 29.
SpaceX has three final Falcon 9 launches planned for 2017, one that will blast off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A). Following that launch, codenamed Zuma, SpaceX will complete the work needed to transform LC-39A for the Falcon Heavy, according to the report. SpaceX will then perform static fire tests in mid-December in preparation for the launch later that month.
Popular Mechanics contacted SpaceX regarding the first Falcon Heavy launch, but the company declined to confirm the report and has not announced a target launch date for Falcon Heavy. However, speaking in late September at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia, Elon Musk said Falcon Heavy would launch for the first time “hopefully towards the end of the year.”
Originally intended to fly in 2013 or 2014, the Falcon Heavy has been delayed multiple times because of technical challenges. The giant launch vehicle will use three cores in the first stage—essentially three Falcon 9 first stages with nine Merlin engines each. Lighting all 27 rocket engines on the Falcon Heavy will present a major challenge, and according to processing information acquired by NASAspaceflight.com, SpaceX has decided to light the engines two at a time rather than all simultaneously, each pair firing up in quick succession until all 27 are lit.
On paper, the configuration will produce 5.13 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, which would make it the most powerful active rocket in the world. The vehicle should be able to loft 140,660 lbs. (63,800 kg) to low-Earth orbit, according to SpaceX, which is a little less than three times the payload capacity of the Falcon 9.
Ultimately, SpaceX hopes to land all three cores of the Falcon Heavy so they may be reused in future launches the same way it’s been landing and reusing Falcon 9 first stages. Doing so, however, would require additional landing pad infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center. It is not clear if SpaceX will be ready to attempt the triple landing by the time the first Falcon Heavy blasts off.
Downplaying expectations, Elon Musk has previously warned that the technical challenges of Falcon Heavy could result in a failed first launch attempt. At the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in July, he said there is “a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit. I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly. I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause damage.”
There’s plenty to do before this three-core bird can fly. The three boosters of the first stage, which are currently in the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at Kennedy, need to be affixed to each other. Conversion work also needs to be completed on LC-39A, and wet fueling tests and a static fire test need to be conducted as well.
Once Zuma is off the ground, Falcon 9 single stick launches will largely move back to SLC-40 starting with the CRS-13 Dragon launch to the International Space Station, set for No Earlier Than (NET) 4 December. That move will free Pad-A for the final round of work needed to finish configuring the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) for Falcon Heavy. According to L2 processing notes, final TEL conversion includes cutting and welding operations and rewiring work for installation of the Falcon Heavy Tail Service Masts (TSMs) at the base of the TEL reaction frame, the removal of the Falcon 9 east/west hold down clamp inserts used for single stick Falcon 9 missions, and installation of the Falcon Heavy compression bridges to hold part of the weight between the side-mounted boosters and the center booster of the heavy-lift rocket.
If work on the launch pad can be completed quickly, with some modifications made before the mystery Zuma launch slated for November 15 or 16, then it’s possible Falcon Heavy could get bumped up to an earlier launch date. “All dates between 20-31 December [are] possible for launch operations,” reports NASASpaceflight.com.
Work on the pad will be followed by a “wet dress rehearsal,” when SpaceX will fill the rocket’s fuel tanks and monitor data from the test. That will probably lead to a second wet dress rehearsal to be followed by the static fire test around December 15. All three cores have been test fired individually at SpaceX’s facilities in McGregor, Texas, but they have never been test fired in the configuration that will be required for launch.
The payload for the maiden launch of Falcon Heavy has not been announced, but SpaceX plans to use the powerful rocket for some ambitious missions, including flying two paying customers around the moon as early as next year. Whether that is likely to occur is difficult to say, and it depends heavily on SpaceX’s commercial crew program to send NASA astronauts to the ISS in a Dragon spacecraft launched by the Falcon 9 Block 5, currently under development.
There are still major hurdles to clear, but its beginning to look like SpaceX has a clear path forward to a Falcon Heavy launch. With any luck, the company will light up that triple candle for the first time before the year is out.
Report: SpaceX to Launch the First Falcon Heavy in December – Popular Mechanics