Updated Post: With 15 minutes left in the launch window, the Falcon Heavy rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday afternoon. About eight minutes later, the missile’s two side-mounted boosters made a dramatic side-by-side landing along the Florida coast, but it wasn’t immediately clear if the central core booster hit a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
The top stage put the payload into orbit, but two more burns are needed before the Tesla is on its way to deep space. Ars will have a comprehensive launch story later Tuesday night, complete with photos and response from SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
Original mail: Today can finally be the day. After nearly a decade of development, the Falcon Heavy has finally made it to the launch pad and has undergone all of its preflight testing. All that remains is to fuel the three boosters and light 27 engines.
The weather at the launch site is fine today, with mostly sunny skies and light winds. According to the official forecast, there is an 80 percent chance of favorable weather conditions by the time the launch window opens at 1:30 p.m. ET. (UPDATE: The window opening has been postponed to 3:45 PM ET due to high-level wind concerns. However, normal refuels have begun and the clock is counting down to a launch. The launch window closes at 4:00 PM ET.)
Of course, anything can go wrong with a rocket’s first flight. That’s especially true given the Falcon Heavy’s structure: three boosters tied together. In an interview with Ars on Monday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the company had tested as much as possible on the ground. But certain elements can only be tested in flight.
“A lot can go wrong,” Musk admitted. “A really huge amount. I would like to emphasize that the chance of success is not super great. I don’t want to mess it up – I’m inclined to say. Because I feel super optimistic. But I have the feeling that that optimism has no basis in fact. I feel like we have a two-thirds chance of success, but in reality we only have a 50-50 chance.”
After launch, assuming the rocket enters orbit, SpaceX will attempt to land the two side boosters in Landing Zone One. These landings should occur almost simultaneously, 7 minutes, 58 seconds after launch. The central core of the rocket remains attached to the payload for a little longer and then comes loose. If all goes well, it will land on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” at 8:19 in flight.
This will not be a launch to miss. While a scrub is certainly possible — much could derail the fueling process that will begin about 90 minutes before launch — a rocket this powerful hasn’t launched from Earth since the space shuttle’s last flight in 2011.
After the Falcon Heavy booster takes off, the second stage takes over after 3 minutes and 15 seconds. It will re-light after 28 minutes and 52 seconds, which should put the second stage and its Tesla charge on a coast of six hours to a much higher orbit. After that time, if all goes well, the second stage will fire a third time to send the Tesla into a preliminary elliptical orbit of Earth and Mars around the sun. Musk said the vehicle should get as far as 380 million to 450 million km from Earth, depending on how the third burn progresses.