Six hours after SpaceX launched its new Falcon Heavy rocket on its first test flight yesterday (Feb. 6), unsuspecting skywatchers in the western U.S. caught a glimpse of the rocket's second stage firing up one last time as it blasted out of Earth's orbit and off into the solar system.
This sort of launch spectacle gives a much needed public engagement boost to the space industry that has not been seen since the time of the space race in the 1960s. The launch drew massive international audiences - but while it was an amazing event to witness, there are some important potential drawbacks that must be considered as we assess the impact of this mission on space exploration.
Still, the Silicon Valley mogul known for self-deprecating understatement hailed the launch as a victory and "a big relief". The moonshot was planned for late this year but SpaceX has yet to commit to that timeline. Apparently, there is a car in orbit around Earth.
If the Roadster survives its five-hour journey through the Van Allen Belt - a region of high radiation where it will be pelted with charged particles - it will attempt a final burn toward Mars, Musk said.
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"I had this image of a giant explosion on the pad, with a wheel bouncing down the road and the Tesla logo landing somewhere with a thud", he told reporters at the Kennedy Space Centre afterwards. You can see if you go up on top of a tall tower or a hill and you see more over the horizon. Robert Zubrin, president and founder of the nonprofit Mars Society, congratulated the SpaceX team on its "spectacular and historic success".
The Hawthorne, California-based company already has paying customers committed to flying with Falcon Heavy, including commercial satellite operators Arabsat, Inmarsat and Viasat, according to its launch manifest.
Mars is driving all of Musk's space efforts.
Propelled by 27 rocket engines, the Heavy packs more than 5 million pounds of thrust at launch, roughly three times the force of the Falcon 9 booster rocket that until now has been the workhorse of the SpaceX fleet.
The only other malfunction of the day was the apparent loss of the rocket's central core, which delivered the payload into space but later smashed into the Atlantic Ocean after missing its landing pad on a drone ship.
The current fuel for Falcon Heavy is RP-1 (a refined kerosene) and liquid oxygen, which creates a lot of carbon dioxide when burnt.
The Apollo-era rockets were more powerful than the Falcon Heavy but they are no longer in use. Musk plans to put the car into orbit around the sun.
SpaceX had outfitted the vehicle with three cameras that beamed back stunning images of the ruby red car soaring through the blackness of space, with the Earth, blue and green and beautiful, passing in the background. "I just kind of like the absurdity of that". The idea was to show life on the desolate planet, a brushstroke of vibrant green on a lifeless red canvas. He's hoping that will encourage other companies and countries "to raise their sights and say, hey, we can do bigger and better, which is great".
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