SpaceX Falcon Heavy concept art

When the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket thunders into the sky above its almost completed launch pad, it will be “the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two.” The Falcon Heavy is expected to knock the Delta IV Heavy off its pedestal sometime in 2017.

Yesterday afternoon, we got our first glimpse of a completed piece of the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX jumped on Instagram to show off the rocket’s interstage. This is the piece connecting the first and second stages of the booster.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy interstage

At liftoff, three Falcon Heavy boosters making up the first stage will generate 5.13 million pounds of force. Each booster is equal to the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket, armed with nine Merlin engines. All total, 27 engines will battle the forces of Earth’s gravity to propel 119,930 pounds of equipment into low-Earth orbit.

Or 48,940 pounds to geostationary transfer orbit.

Or 29,980 pounds to Mars. The Curiosity rover tips the scales at 2,000 pounds.

Or 6,390 pounds to Pluto. NASA’s New Horizons probe weighs 1,050 pounds and was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket back in 2006.

Once the first stage is done, the second stage engine fires. A single Merlin engine modified to work in the vacuum of space pushes the payload deeper into the final frontier. Designed to burn for around six minutes, the single Merlin engine can be switched off and on to deliver different payloads into different orbits. This single engine is housed inside the interstage seen above.

If SpaceX can get the Falcon Heavy into the air in 2017, they’ll beat NASA’s Space Launch System by up to a year. But the company still needs to get back in the air before the Falcon Heavy ever sees beyond the blue skies of Florida. The investigation into the September 1 launch pad explosion is being finalized. SpaceX pinned the explosion on a breach in the second stage cryogenic helium system.

Right now, the plan is for SpaceX to return to flight in early January with the launch of Iridium-1. Between now and then, engineers are conducting extensive testing to “help ensure the highest possible level of mission assurance prior to launch.”

A successful January launch means the company can get back to normal operations as they tackle their backlog of missions. A quick peek at SpaceX’s future missions show the company isn’t lacking in the work department. Between ISS resupply missions and commercial customers, 2017 is set to be one of SpaceX’s busiest yet. Toss in the first launch of the Falcon Heavy and next year could see the first steps in SpaceX becoming a deep space company.


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