For SpaceX, 2012 was the year of the Dragon. In 2013 the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s heavy lift vehicle, is set to steal some of the spotlight away from the Dragon.
The Falcon Heavy is currently in development and builds off of the Falcon 9 first stage and the Merlin 1D engine, an upgrade of the engine currently flying on the Falcon 9. What makes the Falcon 9 design so reliable is the ability to handle several engine failures without having to abort or experience a R.U.D. (SpaceX lingo for an explosion, a.k.a. Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly). Along with the engine reliability the Falcon Heavy will be the first rocket in history to feature propellant cross-feed from the side boosters. Since the rocket does not need full throttle to maintain acceleration as it travels into the atmosphere, the center core reduces throttle as the rocket ascends with the side cores still at full throttle. This allows for the core stage to be close to full of propellant when the side boosters separate, essentially leaving a fully fueled Falcon 9 ready for liftoff many miles above the earth.
The standard fairing of the Falcon Heavy can carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft weighing 117,000 pounds into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 26,460 pounds into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). This is twice the lift capacity of the NASA Space Shuttle, and the Boeing Delta IV. The only heavy lift vehicle capable of lifting more payload than the Falcon Heavy is the Saturn V, last flown in 1973. If that isn’t enough to blow your hair back you might be impressed by the 3.8 millions pounds of thrust the Falcon Heavy kicks out at liftoff. That is the equivalent of fifteen Boeing 747 aircraft at full power. The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world.
According to the National Space Society, example payloads the Falcon Heavy can handle include:
- New, larger space station modules.
- Low Earth Orbit solar powered ion, or plasma, tug which would allow enable large payloads to be moved to higher orbit without needing liquid fuel.
- A propellant depot, allowing refueling once leaving the Earth’s atmosphere.
- A large optical space telescope to replace Hubble.
- A 50-ton power satellite that could provide about 10 megawatts of power to disaster sites via laser beam.
The cherry on top is SpaceX will be able to conduct these heavy lift launches at about one-third of the current cost of a heavy lift launch. The Air Force currently pays about $435M per heavy lift launch and the Falcon Heavy will fly for $83M-128M depending on the set up requested by the customer.
So, when do we get to see this towering piece of heavy metal in action? SpaceX has a Falcon Heavy demo flight listed on their launch manifest for 2013 but with no specific date or month. The demo flight is planned to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Until then watch the animation:
Sources: SpaceX, National Space Society, OnOrbit